FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (NNS) -- In 1992, the owner of a wreath company in Maine had a surplus of decorations leftover toward the end of the holiday season.
Rather than let the 5,000 extra wreaths go to waste, Morrill Worcester tried to think of something he could do with them other than throw them away, something meaningful.
After contemplating a number of options, he recalled a childhood trip to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The seemingly endless rows of graves commemorating service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice, he thought, deserved a small token of appreciation.
"I didn't want to throw them away," Worcester said. "They were nice and fresh so I thought about Arlington, because of the impact it had on me as a boy."
With help from his senator and a local trucking company, as well as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, Worcester organized a wreath-laying ceremony that quietly developed into an annual event. But it wasn't until more than a decade later that this yearly act of kindness received nationwide attention.
In 2005, a photographer published a photo of snow-covered wreaths adorning several graves in the cemetery. Worcester began to receive messages and calls from people around the United States almost instantly. They thanked him for his yearly efforts and wondered how they could help.
"When we found out about it, we just felt compelled to come and help," said Beth Shea, a volunteer who participated in this year's commemoration. "It's a special time of year, and this is such a wonderful tribute to those who are buried here. It's incredible. There are thousands of people here and it shows that the spirit of America is truly present."
Wreaths Across America is now an annual tradition for many, a way to pay respect to the fallen at not only Arlington National Cemetery, but at more than 1,200 veterans cemeteries across the United States and around the world.
This year, more than 45,000 people braved the cold weather at Arlington with a collective goal of leaving no grave uncovered. Men, women and children of all ages came at sunrise from across the country to begin unloading 65 trucks filled to the brim with about 245,115 wreaths. Volunteers placed them in front of headstones, decorating the graves of complete strangers or, in some cases, family members and loved ones.
"My in-laws are buried here, so it carries a special meaning for me and my family to come and show our appreciation," Shea added. "You could easily stay in bed and not come down on a freezing, cold day, but this is such a special thing to be part of. This is truly a unifying thing, and we're happy to pay tribute to both our family and others here at Arlington."
From its humble beginning to what is now an annual pilgrimage for so many, Wreaths Across America has achieved success far greater than what Worcester envisioned 25 years ago. Despite that, his company still makes all decorations for the Arlington wreath laying, and his goal remains the same: to provide a small token of appreciation for those who gave so much.
"I'm a very lucky man to be able to live in this country and enjoy all it has to offer, and in some small way be able to thank veterans for all they've done for all of us," Worcester said. "I'm truly humbled to be a part of what you see here today, and all I can say is God bless them all and God bless America."
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