Braving the Cold, Collecting Wreaths

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 1/25/2022

By Kevin Hymel

Despite the 12-degree temperatures on the morning of January 22, 2022, people roamed through Arlington National Cemetery removing wreaths from headstones—originally placed in December during the annual Wreaths Across America event. They picked up red-ribboned wreaths, sometimes hooking them on their arms or stringing them on a rope, and hauled them to strategically placed dumpsters. They came as volunteers, as teams, as families.

“I come almost every year,” said John Hughes, who was part of a team from the professional services company Ernst and Young. “We had about a hundred people come to lay wreaths, but only about thirty signed up to take them away.” Even some of those thirty began to opt out the night before, as the temperatures dropped. Only about fifteen showed up at the cemetery, leaving Hughes to worry that it might take the entire day to clear a single section. “But I signed up, so I came out to do it,” he said.

First timers Russ and Jill Millett had come to the cemetery back in December to place wreaths on headstones, and they felt it was important to also help take them down. “We just thought there’s probably not going to be as many people volunteering for this,” said Jill. “I love it.” Russ called his fellow volunteers, who were working out in the cold, “hearty souls.”

Jennifer Johnson and her teenage son Brian drove down from Baltimore. Last year, they removed wreaths at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills, Maryland. “So this year we were like ‘okay, well, we haven’t done it at Arlington,’” said Johnson, “’so we’ll go down there and do it.’” Brian was picking up wreaths to help earn service hours for his high school, Archbishop Curley, and the Boy Scouts.

Jenny Washburn and her family have been picking up wreaths for the last five years, with the exception of last year when all events were cancelled due to covid. “We’ve been coming since she was about one,” she said, pointing to her little daughter Linden, who dropped to the ground with exhaustion. “It’s part of our holiday-time tradition for our family.” With Washburn’s husband deployed, the family was not all together this holiday season. “He’s not with us today,” she said, “but his brother, who is a Marine, is with us, so he’s kind of filling in for my husband.”

The brother, Chandler Washburn, removed wreaths to be close to his niece and nephew, and for two other reasons: “to help out and give back to my community.”

To these volunteers, braving the cold weather to collect wreaths was only a small sacrifice. To them, it was a way to honor those who sacrificed all.