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Carol Ann Cerkan lays wreaths over the graves of soldiers on Wreaths Across America Day in 2011.
Volunteer Pati Redmond of Frederick, Md., helps lay holiday wreaths over the graves of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in December 2011. The project will decorate military grave sites on Dec. 15 this year.
By CATHY DYSON
Both events started simply, with individuals placing several hundred wreaths on tombstones of servicemen and -women.
Both have grown to the point they'll set record numbers this year. Volunteers will decorate the final resting place of thousands of members of the armed forces. Some are loved ones they've lost; others are people they've never met.
Both events are open to the public, and visitors are encouraged to participate.
Dec. 1: The National Wreath Project
The first holiday after Marine Corps Sgt. Eric McColley, 23, was shot down in Africa as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, his parents got all the wreaths left over from their nearby Giant store and brought them to Quantico National Cemetery.
There, John and Susan McColley, who live in North Carolina, placed a wreath on their son's tombstone--and on those service members buried around him.
That was Christmas 2006, and the McColleys later created the Sgt. Mac Foundation to raise funds all year for the wreath project.
This holiday season, the McColleys will start their annual tradition in Gettysburg, where Eric was born and raised.
Volunteers will gather early on Friday, Nov. 30, in the parking lot of the Gettysburg Giant store. They'll tie red ribbons onto a record 7,000 wreaths this year, then load them into vehicles.
They'll place 1,600 at Gettysburg National Cemetery and 5,400 at Quantico National Cemetery in Triangle on Saturday, Dec. 1.
For the Quantico event, volunteers should gather about 9:30 a.m. at the circle in front of Section 10 on Rappahannock Place, said Stan Clark. He's one of about five board members who work, without pay, throughout the year on foundation projects.
Starting at 10 a.m., the group will distribute the holiday greens and red ribbons. The event also includes a ceremony and prayer.
Typically, the event attracts people from toddlers to octogenarians, as well as veterans groups and motorcycle riders.
"It's just a real mix of people," Clark said. "We like to see that."
This year's wreath project will cost $56,000. Donations can be sent to the Sgt. Mac Foundation, 915 Fairview Ave., Gettysburg, Pa. 17325, Attn: Stan Clark.
Dec. 15: Wreaths Across America
In 1992, Merrill Worcester acted on an impulse similar to the one the McColleys had. He owns Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine, and had leftover wreaths on Christmas Eve.
He remembered how moved he'd been as a boy, when he visited Arlington National Cemetery. He decided to take his wreaths there.
Twenty years later, his company is set to distribute 400,000 wreaths at national cemeteries across the country. The project, called Wreaths Across America, will decorate tombstones this year at Oak Hill Cemetery in Fredericksburg, Culpeper National Cemetery and at Quantico.
Businesses, individuals and corporations help sponsor the cost of the wreaths. At noon on Dec. 15, ceremonies will take place at 750 locations in the nation.
Seven ceremonial wreaths will be placed to remember each branch of the military as well as merchant Marines and prisoners of war or those missing in action.
At Quantico, members of the Fredericksburg Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol will participate in the ceremony for the seventh year. The squadron is part of the Air Force auxiliary.
Maria Leon Guerrero, a first lieutenant with the squadron, said she's proud to be a part of the ceremony "because their goal touches my heart."
She likes the way the program honors the fallen, those who served and their families and makes children aware of the sacrifices of veterans.
Sponsorship of wreaths begins at $15. Donations can be made online at wreaths acrossamerica.org or by mail at Wreaths Across America, Box 249, Columbia Falls, Maine, 04623.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425