WASHINGTON — The headstones at Arlington National Cemetery stand silent at their posts, aligned with military-grade precision to mark the final resting place of the nation’s heroes. The markers, each a stark, uniform white, stand at attention over veterans at rest, the simple carved lettering of each a dignified tribute.
But in December, as it has for nearly three decades, the solemnity of this hallowed ground and its cadre of markers is brightened with emerald wreaths trimmed in scarlet ribbon. It’s the work of Wreaths Across America, a tradition that can only happen with the participation of the nation’s truckers.
And happen it does, in more than 2,400 locations across the U.S., honoring fallen veterans from coast to coast. But nowhere does the image stir the soul as in Arlington.
“Oh, man. It was one of the most humbling experiences that I’ve had throughout my trucking career,” said Sammy Brewster of Atlanta, an Army veteran who drove in the Arlington convoy for the first time in 2020. “It’s a memory that I’ll cherish and remember for the rest of my days, man. Being a veteran myself, it was a wonderful opportunity.
“To meet those Gold Star Families to be able to be a part of it and with the way they embraced us, I could see and feel and tell how much it meant to them. It was an awesome opportunity, and it will stay with me the rest of my days,” he continued. “I’ve done a lot of things in my days in the trucking industry and I hate to pick a favorite, but this one here is right up at the top. You know what I’m saying?”
Brewster joined Nate McCarty of Greeley, Colorado, a fellow Army vet and driver for ABF Freight, behind the wheel of the American Trucking Association’s (ATA) specially decaled rig that leads the Arlington procession every year. In 2020, that procession included dozens of semis loaded to the ceiling with evergreen wreaths.
McCarty, who during Desert Storm spent six months in Saudi Arabia assigned to a prisoner-of-war camp detail, has driven with the program for six years; for five of those years, he has delivered wreaths to Arlington. He said the event hits close to home.
“Nobody that I served with lost their life, so I’m lucky enough that I didn’t see anything so bad that cost me any of my brothers and sisters that I served with,” he said. “But I lost a real good friend of mine from high school in 2007, Staff Sgt. Shane Becker. He and I played high school football, and we used to hang out together all the time. He was inspired to join the Army after I did. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life.
“We served for four years and he got out and was working in the oil fields in Texas when 9/11 happened,” McCarty continued. “He was so moved by it he got back in the Army again and got back into an infantry unit. He was killed in 2007 in Iraq. When I do this wreath trip, I think about people like him and his family. He had two little girls when he got killed. It’s just a really good way for me to honor people like him.”
Wreaths Across America began as a way for Worcester Wreath Co. of Maine to distribute surplus holiday wreaths. The event remained fairly modest from 1992 until 2005, when photos of the event started to go viral. The founding of a nonprofit organization followed in 2007, and the annual wreath-laying has grown by leaps and bounds since.
Elisabeth Barna, executive vice president of industry affairs with the ATA, said the reason for the organization’s growth is simple: People have universally responded to the call to honor the nation’s heroes, from trucking companies to individual drivers to the volunteers who show up in droves to unload and place the wreaths.
“The trucking industry, in and of itself, cares so much about our community and our members in the military. This is a way for us to give back and to honor those that have fallen and those that are currently still serving,” Barna said. “A lot of our drivers and owners and professionals in the industry are veterans. [This event] holds such a special spot for them and it’s an honor for them to be able to participate.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a company that we’ve asked to participate that has said no,” she continued. “In fact, J&M Tank Lines out of Birmingham, Alabama, wanted to jump in and be part of Wreaths Across America. They run tankers, and they actually purchased a dry van and got it decaled just so they could haul a load of wreaths and be a part of this because they felt so strongly about it, in addition to their financial support.”
This year, the program drew the direct endorsement of President Donald Trump. When cemetery officials announced the cancellation of the event due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Commander-in-Chief stepped in, directing the Secretary of the Army to ensure the event proceeded in a safe manner. Afterward, President Trump tweeted in characteristically plainspoken fashion, “I have reversed the ridiculous decision to cancel Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery. It will now go on!”
That directive allowed first-timers, like Robert Errthum of Iowa, the chance they’d been waiting for. Errthum has driven Wreaths Across America routes to cemeteries in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa for the past three years; but in 2020, his number finally came up to deliver to Arlington. It would be the first time the Army veteran ever stepped foot in the famed cemetery.
“Honestly, it’s almost — I don’t even know how to explain it,” Errthum said. “We were in Section 3 and Section 8, which is part of the older section of Arlington. It’s really humbling. It’s kind of scary. I mean, not spooky scary, but it’s really heartwarming and in the same sense, it’s really sad. It’s really a different experience.
“You feel at peace, you know? There’s such a calmness. But, in the back of your mind, it’s sad,” Errthum explained. “You realize all of these people, at some point in time in this country, gave their life for the ground that we’re standing on.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.