- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

As the fog lifted yesterday morning, Amanda Begitschke, an 11-year-old from Smyrna, Ga., carefully leaned a green wreath with a red ribbon against a white grave marker in this hallowed garden of stone.

“It’s beautiful,” said her father, Dwain Begitschke, a business consultant, as he watched hundreds of people carrying identical wreaths to tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for children and civilians to honor those who have died in the armed services,” echoed Donna Ellington, Amanda’s grandmother, who also came from Georgia for this 15th annual laying of wreaths.

An hour or so earlier, a truck carrying 5,000 wreaths from Maine had wound its way slowly on the narrow roads through the rows of markers of final resting places of so many of the nation’s fallen heroes.

Seven home-schooled children from Cobb County, Ga., were among the 500 or so volunteers who gathered to place the wreaths on headstones in Sections 3 and 11. Each year, wreaths are taken to a different area in the 200-acre cemetery where more than 300,000 Americans are buried.

“Place it at an angle on the stone 45 degrees or less so the wind doesn’t blow it over,” instructed Wayne Hanson, an organizer from the Maine State Society in the District. “Do not place a wreath on a stone with a Star of David on it.”

Arlington officials requested that this evergreen symbol of Christmas not be placed on the gravestones of the Jewish men and women who died for their country.

“Take the time to look at the name on the stone,” he urged. “This is a time to reflect and to think about that individual.”

Some graves haven’t been visited for decades, but not all the headstones bear names of strangers.

This is the fourth year that Barbara Sullivan and her 9-year-old daughter, Maggie Sullivan, have come from Virginia Beach to help lay wreaths.

“Maggie’s father is interred here,” Mrs. Sullivan said.

Navy Lt. Patrick Sullivan was killed in a military accident shortly before his daughter was born. Both Mrs. Sullivan and Maggie are Maine natives. Each year, the folks from their home state set aside a wreath for Maggie to lay at her father’s grave.

“It’s hard on a child visiting a grave site,” said Mrs. Sullivan, who has not remarried. “It’s not all that interesting for a child just walking around [in a cemetery].”

Joining the bustle and spirit of the wreath laying “makes it easier on her,” said Maggie’s mother.

Morrill Worcester was there to help unload wreaths from his factory in Harrington, Maine, for this holiday program that has spread from Arlington to 230 other state and national cemeteries nationwide.

“It started because I had too many Christmas wreaths to sell back in ‘92,” said Mr. Worcester, president of Worcester Wreath, a wholesaler of holiday balsam products and the largest supplier of wreaths for L.L. Bean. “I didn’t want to throw them away and I thought, ‘This is the place to put them.’ ”

Ever since Mr. Worcester won a trip to the District, as a 12-year-old paper carrier for the Bangor Daily News, he has been deeply moved by the legacy of Arlington, where an average of 28 funerals are held each day.

He arranged with military officials to deliver that first truckload of surplus wreaths and began a tradition that grew into the “Wreaths Across America” campaign. It is now almost a year-round volunteer enterprise. He declined to estimate the cost, saying only that the more elaborate wreaths his company makes for L.L. Bean retail for $29.50 each.

“I’m surprised that it means so much to so many,” said Mr. Worcester. “I think it’s because they all realize what the military and its families have done for us.”

Asked how many Christmases to come will see a truckload of Maine wreaths arriving at the cemetery, Mr. Worcester said, “We’ll always do it.”

The bundled folks carrying wreaths stopped and stood silently as a caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin passed — a reminder that there will be new headstones to adorn next year.

Bunny and John O’Leary, who rode in an escort truck down from Maine, broke into tears as they spoke of their son, Ray, an Air National Guardsman stationed in Bosnia.

They haven’t heard from him recently, even though he turned 23 last week. Staring into a forest of TV cameras, they said, “If you can see us, Ray, happy birthday.”

Claire Bayles, 15, wore a Georgia Tech sweatshirt as she and her sister, Rachel, 13, took wreaths with their parents, Scott and Lisa Bayles.

“We figured they’re going to learn more in these four or five hours than they would have learned in eight hours of school today,” said Scott Bayles, a Georgia Tech graduate who lives in Ashland, Va., and works for America Online.

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