Remembering and honoring the nation’s veterans with evergreen wreaths adorned with a bright red bow started a national conversation in 2006 about the service and sacrifice of America’s patriots laid to rest in military cemeteries across the nation and overseas. Now, the conversation initiated by Wreaths Across America has moved inward, with a word-of-mouth remembrance program for veterans’ families. It’s called the Remembrance Tree Program -- tagging trees on Worcester Wreath Co.’s 17,000-acre all-natural balsam tree forest. The year-round comfort and healing it brings to the 10,000 families currently participating are undeniable.
Civil Air Patrol cadets saluted Richard Gammon’s CAP tree as his daughter, Brenda, soaked in the moment. She and her mother Marcia picked out a tree for his dog tags near the chapel -- one for his time in the Air Force and one for CAP.
The replica dog tags, provided free of charge by Wreaths Across America, note the veteran’s rank, branch of service, name and dates of birth and death. They are placed 4 feet off the ground close to the trunk of the tree.
“'A person dies twice, once when he takes his last breath and once when his name is spoken the last time. So, for that not to happen, you must speak their name,"” Brenda recalled being told by Julie Hinkle of Wreaths Across America. So, she said her father's name as she placed the pair of dog tags on the tree.
Having the cadets there, saying the name and permanently tagging the trees were “a very beautiful thing and very healing for my mom and me,” she said. “It was the perfect tribute.”
Maj. Richard Gammon, who served as commander of the 35th Composite Squadron in Maine for 10 years, once took a vanload of cadets on the Wreaths Across America convoy to Arlington, Virginia, and he participated in five wreath-laying events there. The convoy begins in Columbia Falls, Maine, where the wreaths are handcrafted, and ends at Arlington National Cemetery.
Last year Wreaths Across America, with the help of CAP and numerous other volunteers, placed a wreath on each of Arlington’s 245,000 graves.
Gammon’s background also includes two decades of service in the Air Force. He retired as a tech sergeant.
“The military was extremely important to my dad,” Brenda said.
“After he retired he found CAP. He loved those cadets,” she said, noting that his nurturing demeanor once led a cadet to abandon thoughts of suicide.
Bob and Cindy Roberts travel from Queensbury, New York, to Worcester Wreath’s tip fields every year to visit their daughter, Kristie’s, tree. Kristie Roberts’ combined service as a medic in the Air National Guard and Army National Guard, where she served as a sergeant, spanned seven years. The Roberts’ loss was especially tragic. Kristie, their only daughter, took her life in 2012. She was only 27.
Kristie’s tree is in the Gold Star Mother’s section.
Every October Bob and Cindy visit Kristie’s tree, taking delight and comfort in watching it grow, and knowing that her tree as well as those in the tip fields are also used to honor other veterans.
Going there is “like a big hug,” Cindy said. “We say her name and say what we want to say, and it echoes throughout the valley.”
“The tree is a growing, living remembrance of Kristie,” she added.
Tagging these trees started as personal gifts for dear friends, all Gold Star Mothers, said Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America.
“They went to a convention and told everyone,” she laughed, and it grew from there.
There have been quite a few emotional moments on the tip land.
“One veteran who had lost a leg and sight in one eye came and tagged a tree for herself,” Worcester said. “The tree will lose its limbs and continue to give and grow, so it felt right, that it related to her.
“The trees serve as a living memorial for the lifetime of the tree for the families,” she said.
The Tip Land
“It’s a wonderful place to be,” Worcester said of the tip land. “You drive through and see the sun shining through the trees and the dog tags glistening. It’s very special.”
The tip land is located in Columbia Falls, Maine. In addition to featuring dog tags, the trees’ branches are harvested or “tipped” – about 1 foot from each branch -- once every three years. The evergreen extractions are used to make holiday wreaths.
“It takes about 3 pounds of balsam brush to make one wreath,” Worcester said.
To meet the demand for 1.8 million veterans’ wreaths this year, 140 workers began tipping trees in early October. The crew of 700 wreath makers will generate 60,000 wreaths a day until early December. The whole process is “in full swing,” Worcester said
CAP has a special relationship with Worchester Wreath and Wreaths Across America. When there was a surplus of wreaths in 2002, CAP’s Maine Wing helped make good use of them at Arlington. “It was just family and a few CAP volunteers,” Worchester.said
Then in 2005 the project was discovered, and it went viral. “We received thousands of calls and emails,” Worcester said. “It helped us develop the mission of remember, honor, teach.”
“In 2006, Civil Air Patrol stepped up to become our first partner,” added Worcester, whose two children were CAP cadets. When the decision was made to honor all requests for wreaths for veterans, CAP jumped in and helped. “Within two days we built 100 wreaths,” she said.
Over the years, CAP’s participation in the program has grown. Currently one-third of all approximately 1,500 squadrons across the nation sell wreath sponsorships and participate in local wreath-laying ceremonies. Over the past 11 years, sponsorship of wreaths has raised $1.1 million for participating CAP units.
CAP also has its own wreath laying observation – the HART (Honoring Allies and Remembering Together) Ceremony on the Ferry Point Bridge in Maine. The annual event recognizes all veterans, including men and women from Canada, who are serving or have served in the U.S. military. Participants include the American Gold Star Mothers, the Canadian Mothers of the Silver Cross families, CAP, Cadets Canada and dignitaries representing both nations.
More information about Wreaths Across America is available on the organization's website and Facebook page.
To sponsor a remembrance wreath, contact a CAP wing near you.
More information about the Remembrance Tree Program can be found here.