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EDITORIAL: Gratitude for our fallen warriors

Wreaths honor the heroes who defended freedom

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Thousands of volunteers will gather at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow to participate in a solemn annual rite of remembrance. The Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, working in conjunction with Wreaths Across America, will donate approximately 20,000 Maine balsam fir holiday wreaths to be placed on graves on America's most hallowed ground. The wreath-laying activities will begin at 8:30 and continue with ceremonies throughout the morning. Approximately 5,000 people are expected to brave the cold to honor our country's veterans.

This year, wreaths will be laid in sections 28, 38 and 43, three adjacent parcels near the northern edge of the cemetery, nestled along a creek bed traced by Lincoln Drive. Many of those laid to rest in this area passed away in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mostly veterans from the world wars who came home to enjoy the blessings of liberty they helped defend.

Some names on the stones found here are familiar. There is Ludwig Bemelmans, an Austrian American who served as a corporal in World War I and later authored the beloved "Madeline" series of children's brooks. Rep. Stewart Hoffman Appleby, a 1920s-era New Jersey Republican, served in the Marine Corps in World War I; during World War II, he joined the Coast Guard in his 50s. Ray Krouse is here, a Navy veteran of World War II who was a defensive lineman for the Colts and Redskins in the 1950s, as is Virginia native and baseball Hall of Famer Ernest "Boojum" Wilson, who was a corporal in World War I and played 23 years in the Negro League.

More recent interments include 1st Lt. Loren Douglas Hagen, Army Special Forces, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1971 in a firefight during a patrol deep into enemy territory. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Nearby is Special Agent John Gibson, a Boston-born Capitol policeman who was gunned down inside the Capitol in July 1998 by a lunatic on a shooting rampage. Though mortally wounded, Agent Gibson was able to return fire, wound his assailant and break up the attack.

Some names may not be familiar, such as Bernard Henry Black, U.S. Navy, who died on Aug. 16, 1959, four days after the birth of his daughter Anita. She passed away four months later and is buried here as well, one of many young children resting with their parents in this tree-crowned valley.

Wreaths will also be laid further south in section 60, where casualties of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are put to rest, sometimes called the saddest acre in America. The ground is relatively flat, the trees are younger, the grass matted, the wounds yet to heal. In section 60, one is more likely to see young men smoking cigars where a buddy lays buried, or a wife with children visiting the grave of their absent hero. Mementoes are common, as are fresh flowers and freshly dug graves. Interments take place daily, and lines of tombstones march steadily east towards the columbarium across Marshall Drive.

On Saturday, volunteers will place a wreath at the foot of each stone; some will pray, some will give thanks, and they will all by their presence renew the country's bonds of gratitude for its fallen warriors.

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