Ending a long journey that included thirty convoy stops between Calais, Maine and the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., the volunteer drivers of the Wreaths Across America (WAA) made a quick stop in Windham on Tuesday. After a week of travel, honoring and remembering American heroes and making their way back to Harrington, Maine, members of the truck caravan decided to do a surprise visit and present seven ceremonial wreaths at Field-Allen Legion Post 148 at the Windham Veterans Center.
But prior to the honorary and ceremonial wreath laying, a crew of eight out of the 15 volunteer drivers stopped to refuel at Chutes Family Restaurant in Windham. After traveling approximately 1,500 miles round trip in one week, the volunteer drivers met one last time for breakfast, recalling with fondness their long, emotional and yet joyous ride together.
“The outpouring of support we received along this trip was incredible,” expressed Jim Johnston, one of the volunteer drivers. “We were greeted at every stop along the way. At one point, over 800 students from a local school lined the streets with encouragement and cheers as we drove down their Main Street. At some locations, we were even given lunch before we headed down the road again.”
Briefly, Wreaths Across America became an official non-profit organization in 2007, after many years of wreath laying that garnered national attention prior to that year. Founded by Morrill Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, ME, the mission and purpose of WAA is to remember and honor all soldiers as well as to teach “younger generations about the value of their freedoms, and the importance of honoring those who sacrificed for those freedoms.”
Honoring and remembering was one reason the caravan stopped in Windham. “I wanted to bring this back home with me,” stated Lil Charron, events coordinator with WAA and former Windham resident. “I wanted to recognize the veterans in my hometown.”
Charron and the rest of the volunteers not only got to provide the ceremonial wreath laying in Windham, but were privileged to meet and talk with Walter Braley, a Korean War veteran who joined the group for breakfast. It is Braley’s goal to fundraise and make enough money to provide wreaths in December 2017 for the 881 soldiers who are buried in all the Windham cemeteries. “It means everything to me,” explained Braley, holding back tears. “When I talk about it (wreath laying and honoring soldiers), it makes me cry.”
Once breakfast had concluded, the drivers resumed their mission for one last ceremony of honor for this Christmas season. With quiet respect, the volunteers drove their caravan of WAA trucks from the restaurant to the Windham Veterans Center (WVC) to lay the wreaths, with Braley riding along in the lead vehicle.
Upon arrival at WVC, the caravan was greeted by over 20 veterans, representing all branches of the military. A wreath was given to a veteran of each branch (Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Army and Merchant Marine.) A wreath was also presented in honor and memory of Prisoners of War/Missing in Action.
Prior to each wreath being placed on the perspective military service plaque, Mel Greenier, veteran and commander had a few words to say to the volunteers. “I want to thank you all for your Wreaths Across America program in honor of our nation’s American hero veterans resting in Arlington National Cemetery,” Greenier began. “This is such a wonderful idea created by the Worcester Wreath Company of Worcester, Maine many years ago. We sincerely thank you and your company for your many years of commitment, and we vets standing here today, very much appreciate your time and effort to the wonderful program. Thank you again and your Maine-based company makes us all very proud.”
For all those present, it was a very heart-rending ceremony of honoring and remembering. Not only here in Windham, but throughout the US with 1.2 million wreaths made and distributed this year.
But in order for this celebrated experience to occur on an annual basis, it takes the efforts of many individuals and organizations through-out the year. As the WAA website states, “our mission isn’t over once December ends.” Continuous fundraising efforts are in motion at all times. Countless people and organizations work and contribute to the WAA efforts.
Rolling Thunder, based out of Sanford, ME, is one such group. Rolling Thunder is a local and national non-profit organization and veterans, missing in action/prisoners of war advocacy group. They spend the year raising funds for a variety of veteran programs to include Wreaths Across America, placing wreaths at the Southern Maine Veteran Cemetery in Sanford. One fundraising effort, a golf tournament, occurred in July of this year at the Spring Meadows Golf Club in Gray. “We made a total amount of $6,800 from that one fundraiser,” Cindy DeCosta, events coordinator of Rolling Thunder, shared. “All the money was contributed to Wreaths Across America. In fact, our mission is so important to us, we are starting a new Rolling Thunder Chapter in the greater Windham area to help increase funding for Wreaths Across America and other veterans’ programs.”
Individuals can volunteer or donate directly to Wreaths Across America at www.wreathsacrossamerica.org . A special thanks to a portion of this year’s volunteer drivers for giving a week of their time to honor and remember: Lil Charron, Jim Johnston, Donna Bagwell, Ruth Stonesifer, Nancy Buell, Doug Brown, Dick Stacey and James Pierce.