On a cold Saturday last December, Desirée Gonzales awoke at 5 a.m. and drove to the Sutton County Cemetery in Sonora. Gonzales, along with her mother and brother, loaded dozens of unwieldy cardboard boxes onto the back of a golf cart and deposited them in each section of the cemetery.
Gonzales walked each row in the days before, marking on a map each veteran’s headstone. She thought there might be 250, but there turned out to be 322. She checked and double-checked her list of names against the map of headstones then removed stacks of fragrant wreaths from each box. The goal: one wreath on each veteran’s grave. Her group of extended family and volunteers lovingly fluffed the branches of lush balsam and straightened the bows of red ribbon. They created a pile of wreaths in each section of the cemetery, ready for family members or caring strangers to place on the grave of a veteran.
Gonzales spent the previous three weeks raising close to $5,000 to cover the cost of the wreaths to be placed during the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony. Each wreath costs $15, and most come from the Worcester Wreath Company in Maine, though some originate with other vendors.
Wreaths Across America grew out of an effort that started in 1992, when Morrill and Karen Worcester of the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, had extra wreaths near the end of their busy holiday season. The Worcesters arranged for the extra wreaths to be transported to Arlington National Cemetery and placed on headstones in one of the older sections of the cemetery.
The tradition continued each year as the Arlington Wreath Project, with the Worcesters systematically adding supporting organizations. Supporters included a trucking company that hauled the wreaths from Maine to Virginia, as well as local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars groups that helped place the wreaths.
In 2005, a photo of snowbound wreaths at Arlington went viral, and requests to honor veterans in other state and national cemeteries poured in from across the country. The Worcesters formed the Wreaths Across America nonprofit in 2007 to help coordinate events and raise funds for the wreaths. Their mission: “Remember, Honor and Teach.”
By 2008, there were ceremonies in every state and 25 cemeteries overseas. In 2017, 1.6 million wreaths were laid at 1,433 cemeteries and memorial sites. Nearly 80,000 volunteers laid 245,000 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery alone.
In Texas last year, 165,000 wreaths were placed on graves at 86 locations.
Ellen Fuller of Bryan first encountered Wreaths Across America after her father, Navy Capt. Raymond O’Neil, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 2011. “During that first year after a loss, it’s an emotional time—a year of firsts without your loved one,” Fuller explains. “I heard about the program and said, ‘Let’s put a wreath on Dad’s grave!’ Then I wondered, ‘Who are these kind strangers?’ They were the WAA.”
Fuller started working for the organization in 2015 and last year helped coordinate ceremonies in the participating cemeteries in Texas. “To be able to pay it forward as a wreath-sister is why I do what I do,” says Fuller, a customer of Bryan Texas Utilities. “My wreath family is the kindest people I know. Those kind strangers are now my family.”
Fuller invited Debra Coffey into the wreath family last year. Coffey’s father, Air Force Capt. Robert Russell “Bear” Barnett, was shot down during a secret combat mission over Laos in 1966, when she was 9. He was declared killed in action, but his remains were not recovered. Coffey attended a memorial service with her family at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio but never felt closure. She always hoped there had been some mistake and he was still alive somewhere. “I waited for so many years for him to show up to my classroom door,” Coffey says. As she grew older, she accepted his death, even though his remains hadn’t been returned. “I never thought I would still be alive and able to bring him home to Texas.”
But that changed when Barnett’s remains were identified and repatriated in 2017. Coffey attended a funeral service with full military honors at Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Her father was laid to rest near the Vietnam Memorial.
After hearing Coffey’s story from Texas State Cemetery staff, Fuller contacted her and invited her to the 2017 WAA event in Austin. “I hadn’t spent Christmas with my father since I was 9 years old,” says Coffey, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative.
Groups across the nation began their ceremonies simultaneously at noon Eastern time December 16 with the national anthem. In Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott gave remarks before a 13-fold flag ceremony and a 21-gun salute. Coffey presented the ceremonial wreath for the Air Force in remembrance of her father.
In Sonora, Boy Scout Troop 19 raised the American flag, and local veterans stepped forward to dedicate a wreath to each branch of the armed forces. With a wordless salute, the veterans took their places behind the wreaths for a moment of silence and remembrance.
A cold rain began to fall as a high school trumpeter played taps, then the 100 or so attendees fanned out across the cemetery, saying the name of their veteran aloud as they placed the wreath on the headstone.
Morgan Mathews of Sonora walked with her husband and two young sons to the very back of the cemetery, where her best friend from high school is buried. Marine Sgt. Shane Folmar was 21 when he was killed three weeks into his first tour in Iraq in 2004.
Mathews placed a wreath on Folmar’s grave and took a photo with other classmates and friends. “You think you’re never going to forget them, and then sometimes you wake up and realize you haven’t thought about them at all,” she says. “He gave his all for us. This is a little something we can do for him.”
After lingering a few moments with Folmar’s memory, Mathews walked through the rest of the cemetery with Gonzales and the volunteers. For veterans with no family in attendance, WAA volunteers read the veterans’ names aloud and placed wreaths at their graves.
DuWayne Castro, chief deputy with the Sutton County Sheriff’s Department, and Mark Chavez, a member of the Sonora High School class of 2018 who left for Marine Corps boot camp in June, offered a matching salute as they finished laying each wreath. They followed the map of headstones until the last wreath was placed. The cold rain continued.
Coffey laid a wreath for her father in Austin, finally home after more than 50 years. “The beauty of those wreaths with the simple green branches and red ribbons against the white of the headstones is so symbolic of hope, of lives lost and the sacrifice of so many lives to preserve the freedom we have,” she says.
“It means so much to myself and my family that the WAA remembers our loved one at Christmastime. It had been so many Christmases gone,” Coffey says. “Just seeing those volunteers spread out and put those wreaths on headstones—it’s riveting. At the end of the ceremony, we didn’t want to leave. We looked at it for hours.”
See more of Julia Robinson’s work at juliarobinsonphoto.com.