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Honoring veterans with Wreaths Across America

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WASHINGTON, D.C. On an unseasonably warm December Friday in our nation's capital, an annual caravan intended to remember our country's military veterans concluded its week-long journey

Wreaths Across America, the organization that executed this many-stopped trip from Harrington, Maine to Arlington, Virginia, was first born as an idea in 1992. Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, decided that the best way to deal with his season-ending surplus of wreaths was an opportunity to pay tribute to military veterans. Arrangements were made for those wreaths to be placed in one of the older sections of Arlington National Cemetery. With help from a number of businesses and individual volunteers, the tradition carried forward for years.

In 2005, a picture of snow-covered wreaths at the cemetery went viral and generated national attention for the project. Since then, thousands of requests and offers of assistance have poured in, resulting in the official formation of Wreaths Across America in 2007. It has continued to grow; hundreds of thousands of wreaths have been placed in the years since. The majority makes their way to Arlington, but simultaneous ceremonies take place at locations all over the country. The Arlington trip might be the main attraction, but it is far from the only one.

This year's convoy made a multitude of stops as it made its way from Downeast Maine all the way to Washington. One of the final destinations was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, where a crowd of hundreds watched as numerous military veterans, law enforcement personnel and other volunteers arrived to pay tribute to those who have fallen in the service of their country.

The Grand Marshal of this year's Wreaths Across America convoy was Gordon Kelley, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam and is Maine's most highly decorated living soldier, having received the Distinguished Service Cross among his numerous military honors.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Gordon Kelley is my father-in-law. It's worth nothing that he's not only an honest-to-goodness American hero, but also a phenomenal human being.)

With dozens of law enforcement officers from all over Maine and beyond standing to one side of him and the mirrored black marble of the Vietnam wall on the other, Kelley spoke of the time he spent at war. He spoke of the men who served under him and beside him, men of all creeds and colors, men who truly were his brothers in arms 44 of whom had their names inscribed upon that wall.

As he said, 'In the darkness and dirtiness of war, there is no color.'

As the crowd stood rapt, he spoke of those brothers, both living and dead, with a genuineness and gruff honesty that belied the powerful emotional response to his remarks. It wasn't all sadness, however, as Kelley offered some fond and funny memories of his former comrades. The connections of which he spoke were stronger than strong, a blend of friendship and family and everything in between.

He spoke of the dangers of war and some of the battles that he fought, remembering moments of tragedy and times of triumph. He also shared his thoughts on war's present realities, closing with an invitation for all those listening to always be prepared to do battle with the enemies of this country a country that Gordon Kelley remains honored to have served.

Wreaths were laid at the wall and participants visited the nearby memorials for World War II and the Korean War; the official distribution of the wreaths took place at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday.

Wreaths Across America has grown exponentially in the past decade, from a small operation to one that involves hundreds of people working together toward a singular goal paying homage to those soldiers that gave their lives to serve their nation. Their mission statement (Remember, Honor, Teach) remains the same; it's an opportunity to not only pay our respects, but learn more about the individual men and women that gave all that they had and sometimes more to their country.

Those who served should never be forgotten. Their sacrifices should always be remembered as a vital and important part of our history. And thanks to organizations like Wreaths Across America, they will be for years and years to come.

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