A different kind of Christmas parade will be coming down Broad Street on Dec. 10. You'll hear the gang of bikers before you see them being led by a police escort riding beside a red, white and blue truck filled with wreaths. Volunteers of every size and variety will be waiting at Richmond National Cemetery, ready to join the bikers at noon in a short memorial service before fanning out to lay wreaths on the graves of veterans who won't be home for the holidays.
"If you can see one of those little Brownies laying wreaths alongside a big burly biker and it doesn't move you, then you're dead," says Rocky Angone, a Vietnam veteran who is the driving force behind the ceremony in Richmond.
Wreaths Across America (wreathsacrossamerica.org) was inadvertently launched by Morrill and Karen Worcester, owners of Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine. The Worcesters contacted Arlington National Cemetery in 1992, asking for permission to place their excess wreaths on veterans' graves as a family project.
"We wanted to say thank you and teach our children about being patriotic," Karen Worcester explains. "After the first year, my husband had tears in his eyes and said, ‘There is no way we are not going to do this again.' "
Fourteen years later, a photo taken by a Pentagon photographer showing the 5,000 donated wreaths adorning graves catapulted the event into the stratosphere. The demand for wreaths became so great that a 501(c)3 organization was formed in 2007, with Karen Worcester as the executive director. They now work with schools and community agencies, which sell wreaths intended for soldiers' graves for $15 each, retaining $5 for their organization and returning $10 to Wreaths Across America for reinvestment. The Worcesters will donate 25,000 wreaths for Arlington this year, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the event. Included in that number will be seven wreaths for every cemetery involved, one for each branch of service and one for the POW/MIA veterans. To date, there are 711 locations covering every state.
Sam Tinsley, a retired Episcopal priest and advocate for Richmond veterans, saw a newspaper article about the wreath program in 2007. He contacted Angone, an ordained minister and the outpost leader for Pointman International Ministries in Richmond, a Christian veterans outreach to other veterans.
"We've been going full throttle ever since," Angone says, before quietly adding that Tinsley succumbed to cancer in 2010.
The two friends and Cliff Troutman, another Vietnam vet, forged the way for Virginia to become the first state to officially recognize the second Saturday in December as Wreaths Across America Day, a proclamation signed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine in 2008. Today there are almost 30 cemeteries participating in Virginia, including eight in Richmond.
While Angone has been at the forefront of local fundraising and usually leads the Richmond ride, this year the Worcesters asked him to escort the ride from Maine to Arlington. A friend will transport Angone's Harley up north. He leaves on Dec. 5 for the 1,000-mile trek, stopping at schools along the way to give presentations designed to fulfill the group's motto, "Remember, honor and teach" — remember the fallen, honor those who served and teach the children the value of freedom.
At Richmond National Cemetery, there are 7,341 gravesites, the resting place for 9,348 men, a few women and their dependents. (During the Civil War, several soldiers shared a single grave.) The eventual goal is to put a wreath on each headstone, which would cost $110,115 annually. Last year, 1,300 wreaths were placed, thanks to numerous hardworking groups.
The South Richmond Harley Owners Group and the Richmond Harley Owners group are the base of the escort, which could climb to 150 bikers. Patriot Guard Riders, who have gained fame by attending funerals of fallen vets to act as a shield between grieving families and protesters, also participate each year, as do about 10 Hell's Angels.
"It started out in jest," Angone says of the Hell's Angels, "but they're actually the first group of riders who jumped in and said, ‘We'll help' and donated money. They're very well behaved. It's just a gentlemen's agreement — they follow my direction."
Trucks donated by numerous agencies from all over the country fan out to different depots for deliveries. Families and friends come to lay wreaths for their loved ones, some lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who purchased wreaths go first, followed by the Brownies, Scout troops, schoolchildren and others.
Jim Biehl, a veteran of the Iraq war, will lead the Richmond ride this year. He and his wife, Mary, will assume major responsibilities for the program in 2012, after Angone retires from Richmond/Steel Horse Harley-Davidson. Owners George Wills and Greg Stoneman will continue to provide space in their store as headquarters for the Richmond effort, while Ashland's Cox Transportation will continue delivering the wreaths.
"I'll be a senior consultant, bringing public awareness to veterans' issues," Angone says. "People don't understand what happens in a combat zone. When you go through such unspeakable horror, it changes you. My heart is with veterans, but riding 1,000 miles in the cold, rain and snow?" he says, shivering before continuing, "I'm not sure if I have control of all my faculties. We're going to do it, though, Lord willing."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.