American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, VA – Placing 100,000 holiday wreaths at the graves where veterans "lie in rest and peace on the hallowed grounds" of Arlington National Cemetery is a tribute to their sacrifices for the nation, the Defense Department’s top enlisted service member, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, said here yesterday.
"Our veterans deserve nothing but the best," emphasized Battaglia, senior enlisted adviser to Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Now in its 20th year, "Wreaths Across America" makes sure veterans' graves at national cemeteries are adorned during the holidays with large, evergreen wreaths bearing bright red bows. Thousands of volunteers -- veterans, family members, Boy Scouts and others – place the wreaths on the headstones.
"Isn't it great to to see that?” Battaglia asked. "It's very refreshing as a service member, but also as an American, [to see] our veterans held in such high regard that [people] would volunteer their time to come out here in the cold, as a matter of fact, to perform work in service and honor of our veterans."
Battaglia, accompanied by his wife, Lisa, also laid wreaths at veterans' graves.
“Wreaths Across America not only gives citizens the chance to pay their respects, it allows for the spirit of the holidays for the fallen and their family members," he said.
"To have this privilege and honor in such a dignified way, to spread holiday cheer and spirit," Battaglia said, "shows even though they may have gone before us, our veterans are still a part of our team and family."
This year's largest wreath delivery, at three times its average size, began its six-day journey from Maine to the cemetery in a convoy of more than 20 tractor trailers and other vehicles, also bringing veterans and families. The parade of vehicles made stops at schools, veterans' homes and national cemeteries along its way.
Yesterday began with the wreaths arriving before dawn at the cemetery, amid a parade of backed-up vehicular and foot traffic, creating an early crowd of people vying to attend the ceremonies.
Battaglia said the event spoke for itself.
"You could see by the audience gathered in the amphitheater for the opening ceremony with standing room only," he said, "the number and mixture of folks here, ... who came here on these hallowed grounds to give their respects," he said.
The wreaths covered many sections of the cemetery's grave sites, touching on dignitaries such as President John F. Kennedy, and winding its way from Civil War veterans' grave sites to service members just buried. The day concluded with the wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"Regardless of conflict, our veterans have given and sacrificed much," he said. "[The least we can do] is what we're doing today."
Battaglia said the family of Morrill and Karen Worcester who began Wreaths Across America made sacrifices, too, to make the annual event possible.
"You really have to admire their motto of 'Remember, Honor and Teach,'" Battaglia said. "Even though a lot of the focus is placed on the children to grow up in the true American spirit, I've learned some very valuable lessons today."