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Truckers help honor fallen soldiers through Wreaths Across America
Scott Harris, alone in his cab and with his thoughts, felt the beginnings of tears as he rolled among the four miles of trucks hauling holiday wreaths of remembrance to be placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
His wife, Lorna, was going to catch up with the Wreaths Across America (WAA) convoy 70 miles down the highway. That would provide a welcome distraction, some company. But for these slow miles at the start of the convoy from Harrington, Maine, to Arlington, Va., Harris’ thoughts were his sole company.
Memories of his fallen son, Dustin, inspired by 9/11 to join the Army, are painfully close to the surface. And on this first day of the week-long convoy, Harris also reflected on the thousands of others, who — like Dustin — didn’t survive the War on Terror and on veterans from other wars whose graves would soon be bearing the balsam wreaths filling his refrigerated trailer.
“That first stretch by myself, sitting in the convoy, my eyes were very moist,” he says, his Maine potato farm upbringing flavoring his no-frills attitude and dialect.
On outbound trips from Maine, this owner-operator’s trailer generally is crammed with those famous Maine spuds, bound for Buffalo, N.Y., and points westward.
On this December 2011 journey, though, he gladly volunteered his trailer and time to haul thousands of wreaths bound for graves in the shadow of the Tomb of the Unknowns and Kennedy’s eternal flame.
“It made me proud,” says the lifetime resident of rural Patten, Maine. “It was an honor.”
Harris, 54, like all the truckers hauling loads of wreaths, took the week off to participate in the journey, an annual tradition with humble, heartfelt 1992 beginnings.
A place that stirs strong emotions
“It was my husband’s idea,” recalls WAA’s Karen Worcester, executive director of the nonprofit that plans this and other ways to celebrate warriors.
Her husband, Morrill, owns Worcester Wreath Company, one of the nation’s largest suppliers of holiday balsam products, based in Harrington, Maine. In 1992, Worcester had an excess of wreaths. A memory from his youth gave him his “what do I do with ‘em?” answer.
Back in ’63, he won a trip to Washington, D.C. He saw all the monuments, but never forgot the mixture of pride and sorrow he felt among the rows upon rows of gravestones at Arlington. So in 1992, he decided that’s where excess wreaths would go.
That was just 5,000 wreaths, transported then — as now — by volunteer truckers.
Some drivers, like Harris, have personal reasons as motivation.
Others are driven by love of country, a common attribute among those who make their livings on the highways crisscrossing the nation.
“I don’t think truckers are extra patriotic, but they might be more vocal about it,” says Tom Trower, 42, an Army vet who served as a missile-system radar operator during the first Gulf War. Last year he drove a Witte Brothers Exchange truck from Missouri to participate in the convoy.
“When we got to the main gates of Arlington, the military had an honor guard and the different trucks were directed to different parts of the cemetery, where volunteers met the trucks and the wreaths were distributed and placed on the graves,” he says.
“While the trucks were being unloaded, I was just sitting and watching them. And then after it was done, I looked out and saw the number of wreaths. It showed our respect in some small way for the men and women buried there. We hadn’t forgotten about them.”
Growing into something bigger
What began as Morrill Worcester’s effort to put excess wreaths on the older markers has grown to the point the nonprofit is annually called on for an increasing number of wreaths to deliver or dispatch to veterans cemeteries and groups around the country and the globe.
This year, 83 truckers and 45 trucking companies are participating in the wreath distribution at Arlington and around the country, and the goal is to place 500,000 wreaths on veterans’ graves and at memorials and monuments in the U.S. and abroad.
“The popularity of this is something,” says Karen Worcester. “Our mission is to remember the fallen, remember and honor those who serve, but mostly to teach.”
The convoy makes frequent stops at schools, local historic sites and town squares, where spectators and schoolchildren, captivated by the sheer number of trucks, learn about the sacrifices of veterans.
“We want to teach the kids the personal aspect, that these aren’t just statistics. We want the kids to make a real connection,” says Worcester. “The biggest danger we have is that a generation of kids don’t understand what freedom is and who paid the price for it. It doesn’t matter if you support the war or don’t support the war. It’s not about the war. It’s the warrior.”
The warrior in Scott Harris’ mind and heart, Specialist Dustin Harris, died April 6, 2006. He wasn’t quite 22 when a roadside bomb ended a life devoted to his country.
“He was a senior in high school when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and it struck him right in his heart and soul,” says Harris. “He said he needed to fight for his country.”
In 2004, after completing a two-year diesel mechanics program at a technical school — with hopes eventually to follow in his old man’s footsteps — he enlisted, taking his skills to war. His transportation unit deployed to Iraq in autumn 2005.
“We talked to him on a regular basis. He was never downbeat,” says the proud father of two. (Younger son, Dylan, 25, is a physical education teacher.) “His unit didn’t see hand-to-hand combat. They were transportation. Their biggest fear was explosive devices. That’s what got him.
“His comrades said he would always choose to be in the dangerous gunner position on the Humvee because a lot of the other boys had families and children and he was single. He chose to be out there.”
Blasted from his gunner’s position, Dustin Harris died in his colonel’s arms, the only victim of the roadside bomb.
“Needless to say, it was one of the most tragic days of our lives,” says Harris. The back window of his Freightliner Coronado offers a quiet memorial, with pictures of Dustin and the phrase “freedom is not free.”
“Wreaths Across America is a tremendous program,” he says, noting that it helps to be traveling in a convoy of similarly mourning families and his supportive trucking family.
He plans on driving in that parade of tribute again this December.
And when he returns from Arlington, he’s sure to tote another wreath to tiny Patten Cemetery, where Dustin Harris, the only boy from the small town to die in this war, is buried.