Volunteers lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery for the 25th year

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An icy rain may have dampened spirits at Arlington National Cemetery Dec. 17, but more than 44,000 volunteers, including members of local Catholic high schools, laid wreaths at 245,000 headstones as part of the 25th annual tradition started by Wreaths Across America.

Though the opening ceremony at McClellan Gate was canceled, the rest of the event continued as planned. Huge semi-trucks were stationed throughout the cemetery and wreaths were distributed at various points. There were special ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the President William Howard Taft Monument, the President John F. Kennedy Gravesite and the USS Maine Memorial.

Many Catholics volunteered to raise money to sponsor wreaths or volunteered at the cemetery, including the Paul VI High School Dance Team in Fairfax and Cadet Program Guardian Battalion, as well as football players, from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.

Michelle Rudy, head coach of the Paul VI Dance Team, said this was their seventh year selling sponsorships.

“While we first came across this opportunity as a fundraiser, we loved the idea that we were also giving back,” she said. “Many of our families over the years, and currently, have members serving in the U.S. armed forces, are veterans and are even buried at Arlington Cemetery, which is where all our wreath sponsorships go.”

Commander Steven Lucas is the officer in charge of the Guardian Battalion at Ireton’s Cadet Program. He said the student participation, which started in 2009, is an avenue of community awareness and service.

“Having exposure to the families, friends and comrades in arms during the day of the event is a humbling experience,” he said.

Lucas said he hopes the student-cadets get a sense of community and sacrifice by paying respects to those who gave their lives in service to the nation.

“While the experience is satisfying,” he said, “it is more importantly a solemn event where respect and dignity is first and foremost.”

Seaman Ryan Lucas, a former cadet at Ireton, is now in the U.S. Coast Guard and assigned to Station Little Creek in Virginia Beach as a reservist performing maritime law enforcement and search and rescue duties. He has participated in the wreath ceremony since 2009. He said he has family members who have served in every war since World War I and his parents served in the Navy and Air Force.

“Wreaths Across America taught me about service and sacrifice and showed me that this nation is worth risking even life itself in order make this country the best country for all generations to come,” he said.

The wreath-laying tradition began at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, a wreath-maker from Maine, had 5,000 extra wreaths and donated them to honor fallen veterans at the cemetery. Now the same effort takes place at nearly 1,200 cemeteries across the nation. The theme of the event this year was “Say Their Names,” in order to remind the volunteers that some graves may not have been visited in years.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016