MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. – You don’t have to tell Lt. Col. Wayne Merritt what a big deal it is to place remembrance wreaths on the white marble gravestones of U.S. military veterans buried at Arlington National Cemetery. As one of the two members from Maine who first involved Civil Air Patrol in Wreaths Across America, Merritt knows all about it, having experienced it firsthand for the past 10 years.
Merritt’s upcoming 700-mile trek to Arlington will be his 11th, and one he looks forward to each December as part of Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit organization founded by the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine, that recognizes the courage and sacrifices of U.S. veterans by placing wreaths on the graves of the fallen during the holiday season.
“We are able to live as we do because of the sacrifice of these men and women,” said Merritt. “We are able to speak freely and go as we please. We must never stop thanking our veterans. They must never be forgotten.”
Merritt and other CAP officers and cadets will join an estimated 10,000 volunteers at Arlington on Dec. 14 for National Wreaths Across America Day. At Arlington and at 825 U.S. cemeteries and memorial sites around the world, other volunteers – many of them CAP members – will also participate in the venture, placing more than 425,000 fresh Maine balsam wreaths on the graves of military veterans as a tribute to their service and sacrifice.
CAP has been a proud partner in Wreaths Across America since 2006, when the nonprofit organization was formed. It was Merritt and another CAP lieutenant colonel, the late Dennis Murray, who saw the potential to expand what was then a fledgling program begun by the Worcester Wreath Co. by tapping into the thousands of service-minded CAP members across America. More and more participate every year — selling wreath sponsorships to the public, laying wreaths and conducting ceremonies to mark the day with pomp, circumstance and patriotism.
“I became involved in Wreaths Across America through Worcester Wreath Co.’s Arlington Project in 2003,” said Merritt. “That year, I took three cadets along on the trip to Arlington. They were so impressed that I came back and called Dennis Murray and asked him if he would like to go on the trip the following year. We took one van and 10 cadets that year. In 2005, when WAA was formed, we decided it would be a great community service activity for CAP. We contacted National Headquarters and the rest is history.”
Today CAP is the largest group fundraising for Wreaths Across America, and the project is now a full-time venture for Merritt, who serves on the nonprofit organization’s executive board as national director. “CAP members help lead the way by selling wreath sponsorships and coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at locations throughout the United States and across the world,” said Lt. Col. J.D. Ellis, CAP’s 2013 national Wreath Across America coordinator. “We provide honor and color guards for the ceremonies as well as thousands of volunteers to help lay wreaths.”
Besides CAP, numerous other civic and charitable organizations, as well as corporate donors, are also involved in the effort, which receives notable support from Gold Star Mothers in the U.S., the Silver Star Mothers in Canada and the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club.
The most visible Wreaths Across America event is a weeklong convoy that begins with a wreath exchange at the Canadian border with Maine and proceeds down the Northeast corridor, stopping for numerous ceremonies along the way. Several semi trucks, part of the convoy, unload their cargo of wreaths at Arlington, where the remainder of the day is devoted to special wreath placements at cemetery sites such as the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Women In Military Service For America Memorial. From there, ceremonies move to the National Mall’s various war memorials.
Other ceremonies are also conducted — from Hawaii's Punchbowl to snow-covered sites in the upper Midwest to a Civil War battlefield in Georgia to the poppy fields of Normandy, France.
Wreaths Across America is a heartfelt way to remember, honor and teach — goals that mirror CAP’s devotion to the military.
“Like Wreaths Across America, we take pride in honoring those who have served our country,” said Ellis. “This is our way of expressing our appreciation and paying tribute for the sacrifices made for our country by our service men and women.”
For more information about Wreaths Across America and participating locations, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org. Donations for Arlington wreaths are being accepted until Dec. 2 through Wreaths Across America’s website and through its Arlington Wreaths Facebook page – www.facebook.com/ArlingtonWreaths.
Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a nonprofit organization with 61,000 members nationwide, operating a fleet of 550 aircraft. CAP, in its Air Force auxiliary role, performs 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and is credited by the AFRCC with saving an average of 80 lives annually. Its volunteer professionals also perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. The members play a leading role in aerospace education and serve as mentors to more than 26,000 young people currently participating in the CAP cadet programs. CAP received the World Peace Prize in 2011 and has been performing missions for America for 72 years. Visit www.gocivilairpatrol.com or www.capvolunteernow.com for more information.