AFMAO, Dover Airmen join forces with Wreaths across America

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ray Geoffroy
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations
Approximately 150 volunteers from Dover Air Force Base joined thousands of joint service members, veterans and civilians to take part in National Wreaths across America Day at Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 13, 2014.

Despite the cold December temperatures, spirits remained high as volunteers placed holiday wreaths at the graves of service members interred at the cemetery.

According to event planners, the Wreaths across America charity group gathered approximately 500,000 wreaths, enough cover every grave in the cemetery, to commemorate Arlington's 150th anniversary.

This year marked the first time Wreaths across America had enough wreaths to recognize every grave at Arlington.

As a show of respect to the customs of non-Christians buried throughout the cemetery, volunteers were instructed not to offer a wreath, but rather to take a moment to appreciate their service and offer thanks.

Dover's Airman Dorm Council planned Dover's role in the volunteer event.

"Our biggest goal as the dorm council is to get people out of the dorms and this was a double hit. We got them out of the dorms meeting other people and at the same time pay respects to the fallen," said Airman 1st Class Andrew Vitale, 436th Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordinance disposal journeyman.

While the volunteer opportunity was originally offered just to dorm residents, base participation quickly expanded to include Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and other units throughout the base.

"We originally opened it up to dorm residents, then word spread very fast and we got requests from everywhere on base, so we ended up opening it to everyone. We got way more people than we expected, which is awesome," said Vitale.

The team drove more than 2 hours from Dover to take part in the event and found themselves greeted by a cheering crowd as they entered the cemetery in uniform.

For many Airmen, this was their first time seeing the cemetery and the event offered a profound experience.

"I was paying some tribute to my EOD brothers and sisters who have fallen and to my right a little girl ran up and hugged a tombstone and kissed it and said 'I miss you daddy.' Yeah, that got me -- that definitely got me," said Vitale.

According to AFMAO Airmen, volunteering their time at Arlington was a natural extension of their formal duties of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families.

"I'm incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to honor our fallen here in their final resting place. This will be my last volunteer opportunity while deployed to AFMAO, but by far is my favorite and the most meaningful," said Tech. Sgt. Richy Kruger, AFMAO dress and restoration NCO.

Arlington National Cemetery's story began during the American Civil War May 13, 1864, when Private William Christman of the Union Army was buried on the plot of land next to the Potomac River; that June, the U.S. War Department formally set aside 200 acres of land to entomb the influx of fallen soldiers.

Today, the cemetery spans 624 acres of hallowed ground and serves as the final resting place for more than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families.

Wreaths across America's tradition at Arlington began in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, a wreath maker from Maine, donated surplus wreaths to the cemetery to be placed among older graves that received less visitors. What started as a single act of charity grew over the years into an annual tradition spanning cemeteries across the U.S.

The theme for this year's wreath laying was 'Remember, Honor and Teach - Don't Say I Should Have, Say I Did.' For the team of Dover Airmen who did their part to remember those who served before them, the experience will have a lasting impact.

"I am very proud and honored to do this, just making sure our past military personnel are remembered," said Senior Airman James Arredon, AFMAO services technician. "Most of these guys made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and it gives me a great sense of pride and respect for what I do. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."