Thousands Lay Wreaths at ANC

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 1/4/2024

They lined up by thousands to honor the nation’s fallen during the holiday season. When Arlington National Cemetery opened on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, civilians and military personnel alike retrieved wreaths from trucks and headed across the grounds to place them at headstones and columbarium niches. 

Volunteers often paused to read the engraved names, while others stood silently or prayed. By noon, all the wreaths had been placed. The annual Wreaths Across America event enables anyone to come to the cemetery and lay a wreath at a grave. The event’s three themes are “remember, honor, and teach”—this year, all three were achieved.

Approximately 30,000 people came to the cemetery to place more than 260,000 wreaths. Some came to visit relatives laid to rest, while others visited as part of an annual tradition. Many were making a second or third annual visit. Whole families, groups of friends and military units came through the gates to take part in the event.

Emily Handcock and her partner, Heather Clear, came to honor those who served. “My grandparents are buried here,” said Handcock. Clear, a U.S. Air Force airman, thought that laying wreaths could help teach a younger generation “what the cost of freedom means.”

Katherine Keller, who drove in from Annapolis, Md., explained that her second cousin, a pilot who served in World War II, “died with his crew when his plane crashed.” She has been laying wreaths at ANC for several years. “It’s an honor to come out here rain or shine,” she said.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class George Konstant attended with his girlfriend and other sailors. After laying wreaths, they met with a Gold Star family whose son was killed in Afghanistan and is buried in Section 60. Fellow Petty Officer Evan Guichard explained, “I just wanted to volunteer.”

Caroline Molnar, a student at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., attended in her JROTC uniform. “We have family in the military,” she said, “so it kind of became a family tradition.” She aspires to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and become a naval aviator.

Randall Fortson and his grandson, Jona, from Spotsylvania, Va., searched for Marines killed at Iwo Jima during World War II. “I’m looking to lay wreaths on some graves from the Ira Hayes era,” he said. “I’d like to teach my grandson something about tradition, honor and respect.” Similarly, Wyatt Achelpho’s father brought him from Culpepper, Va., to visit his grandparents. “I get to say hi to my grandpa and grandmother for one day a year,” said Wyatt. “It gives me a little bit of closure.”

U.S. Navy Capt. Emily Hoffman and two friends reflected on laying wreaths as they left the cemetery. Hoffman laid wreaths at the graves of a family friend and an Air Force master sergeant with whom she served. “It’s a good moment to pay respects on a day other than the typical holidays,” she said. Her friend Marleigh Bickel came to see her grandfather, who had spent his career in the Air Force. “He was big on country and patriotism,” she explained, “so I thought it was a good way to honor him.” Megan Westby, whose husband handles K-9s at Fort Myer, wanted to lay a wreath for those who could not. “If my family member were laid to rest here and I couldn’t make it,” she said, “I’d want everybody to come out here and pay their respects and celebrate Christmas.”

By noon, the job was done. As the crowds filtered out of the cemetery, they left behind a beautiful vision of tribute. Almost every headstone, niche and monument in the cemetery had been decorated with a green wreath topped by a red bow, making Arlington National Cemetery ready for the holidays.