Volunteers Brave Bitter Cold to Remove Wreaths from ANC

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 1/24/2024

Ankle-deep snow and temperatures hovering below 25 degrees could not keep people from Arlington National Cemetery to honor servicemembers and their families on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024. They gathered at the gates for the cemetery’s 8 a.m. opening to pick up the wreaths laid at headstones and niches on Dec. 16, 2023, as part of the annual Wreaths Across America event.

For some, the removal of the wreaths, known as “Wreaths Out,” serves as a milestone. “Wreaths Across America ushers in the holiday season, and Wreaths Out cleans up and gets ready for the new year,” said Jonathan Wigginton, whose mother is buried at ANC.

The cold did not seem to bother some volunteers. “This is short-sleeve weather for us,” remarked George Campstra, with the Michigan State Society. Fellow member John Guzik said hello to each headstone as he removed the snow-covered wreaths. “A lot of people buried here haven’t had a visitor since the last Wreaths Across America,” he noted. “Snow hardens your resolve,” said Troy Goercko, a 20-year Air Force veteran who volunteered for the event. “It’s a great time to come out and serve.”

Those who did not embrace the cold at least prepared for it. “We went out and bought long johns and new gloves, and I’m wearing a coat I shouldn’t be carrying wreaths with, but it’s warm,” said Kathie Jackman, who attended for the first time with her husband and neighbors from Maryland. Picking up wreaths made her think of the families who received wartime telegrams that their loved one had been killed. “I can’t imagine, as a mom, getting one for your son, daughter or husband,” she explained, “so we’re proud to do this.”

Many who volunteered are active-duty service members or veterans. Greg Halter, a senior chief in the Coast Guard Reserve, organized Jackman’s group. He has been serving his country since 1992, when, he said, “I was jumping out of airplanes at Fort Richardson, Alaska, for the U.S. Army”—which might explain his tolerance of the cold. Air Force veteran Judi Hartman brought her hiking group to the columbarium. “We honor the military and it’s a great way to contribute to our community,” she said. Rachel Cole, a former Marine and a member of the hiking group volunteered because, as she noted, “So few people show up compared to when they lay them.”

Some traveled great distances just to pick up the wreaths. Army veteran Christopher Thompson came from Roxboro, North Carolina. “I’m just paying my respects,” he humbly stated. Former Army Capt. Christian Cannon, who just moved to the area from South Korea, brought his nine-year old son, Cameron, who wants to someday be a Marine aviator and found the mission fun.

Volunteers of all ages noted the importance of serving their community. Native Minnesotan Heather Helmstetter came with her husband and son, who volunteers for the Young Men’s Service League. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to give back. Although we live close by, we don’t always take advantage of being here.” Olivia Shank, a senior level Girl Scout, picked up wreaths with her family on her birthday weekend to help earn the Girl Scouts’ Truffle Award. “It’s a workout,” explained her mother, Lynne, “but it’s pretty.”

Volunteers employed novel methods to gather wreaths. Two 14-year-old boys from the Catholic Youth Organization ringed their wreaths on a long tow rope. A young man and his father used a long rod, while one group used hockey sticks. John Carmichael, a 23-year Army and Space Force veteran, came with his wife and his disabled veterans’ hockey team. Carmichael stacked wreaths on his hockey stick barehanded. “My wife forgot her gloves,” he explained, “so I gave her mine.”

Those who contributed to Wreaths Out saw it as a meaningful way to give back to those who served their country. “This is a great place,” said David Chambliss, “and we’re here to bring it back to the way it’s supposed to look. I couldn’t miss this.”