With the mission to Remember fallen U.S. veterans, Honor those who serve, and Teach children the value of freedom, the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at more than 1,600 locations across the 50 states, at sea, and abroad.
Members of the Washington, D.C. chapter have participated in the event at Arlington National Cemetery every year since 2015, and this year two alumni are hoping to keep up the tradition on their own, Dec. 19, pending COVID-related precautions and any decisions around the event being fully virtual.
“It’s a very meaningful event for us in this area,” said Kara Clunk Cappello, class of 2008 and leader of the D.C. chapter’s event. Cappello, a political science major and English minor who went directly to law school at American University’s Washington College of Law after graduation, now works at Lindner & Associates, PC.
“Because of our location, both the federal government and the military have a huge presence in our lives,” she continued. “We all know someone who has served in the military, whether it be a neighbor, friend, family member, or a loved one. Being able to participate in this event, walking among the thousands to have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, and telling the individual who lays beneath each grave, ‘thank you for your service,’ is so meaningful. It’s beautiful to see the thousands of people who come together on this day to lay the wreaths at the cemetery and honor the veterans and their families. I have so much pride for our country each year after we hold this event. You have so many people of different walks of life coming together to celebrate the members of the military and their families. It is just an amazing event.”
Wreaths Across America coordinators encourage everyone to read the headstone of each individual, say the individual’s name who was laid to rest in the cemetery out loud, think about the individual’s journey and family's journey, and express gratitude for the person’s service. The event itself is a large communal event where each wreath laid across the entire nation is donated. Wittenberg’s D.C. chapter donates wreaths each year.
“Wreaths are made in Maine and then trucked to the various locations nationwide,” Cappello said. “Very early in the morning on the day of the event, there is a semi-truck parade where all the trucks drive slowly down Route 110 and into Arlington National Cemetery. Typically, there is a state trooper from each state leading the way for the trucks, so it is amazing to see not only these trucks hauling the wreaths, but also all of the state troopers that have volunteered to follow these trucks to the cemetery all the way from Maine, New Hampshire, etc. During the parade of trucks, you will have hundreds of people on both sides of Route 110 cheering and yelling ‘Thank you’ to them for hauling the wreaths from Maine.”
In the past and depending on the weather, the event has drawn thousands of people. Wittenberg’s chapter lays approximately 50 wreaths annually. However, there have been years where it was raining or sleeting, and the chapter probably laid over 200 wreaths because less people attended.
“Participants get to pick which sections or areas they want to lay wreaths,” Cappello said. “To my knowledge, we have not yet laid a wreath at an alum’s grave. Allison started the research so that hopefully this year we can lay a wreath at an alum's grave and honor them this year. Since the cemetery is so large, depending on the location of the gravesites, we will probably have to pick one alum to honor this year, and then honor another alum next year and so on. What is truly amazing about this event is that volunteers make it happen. Even the people who unbox the wreaths to hand to participants are volunteers.”
The organization hosts a ceremony honoring all veterans, usually beginning at 9 a.m., followed by the laying of the wreaths. Each veteran is honored at the event. This year, the nonprofit is actively monitoring the requirements set forth by county health officials relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and will make necessary modifications to the ceremony plans and laying of veteran wreaths to ensure the safety of all who attend and participate.
“I've participated in Wreaths Across America with the D.C. chapter the last two years and am excited to take part in the event for the third time this December,” said Allison Scaia, class of 2009 and past president of the Wittenberg Alumni Board. “While I'm sure the event will look very different this year, I still look forward to taking part either with Wittenberg folks or independently.”
Wittenberg’s D.C. chapter, as well as other alumni chapters, hasn’t held in-person events since COVID hit in March. Therefore, the Wreaths Across America won’t be a formally sponsored event this year, but Scaia and Cappello will be in attendance. To connect with either, please contact them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested can also visit https://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ to find a cemetery in their area to participate and volunteer.
Historically, the D.C. chapter tries to host four-to-five events a year, including Wreaths Across America.
“We usually host one or two happy hours, a networking event where we either have a panel of alumni speak, or we ask a Wittenberg professor to speak on a particular topic, then a Homecoming cookout, Boo at the Zoo for the kids, and the Wreaths Across America service event,” Cappello said. “We established a scholarship, the Witt in Washington Scholarship Fund, for Wittenberg students who participate in the Lutheran College Washington Semester (LCWS) program located in Rosslyn, Virginia. Each year, we fundraise by hosting a silent auction at the networking event. We also established a mentoring program for these LCWS students. Both the alumni and the students seem to really enjoy this program.”
Upon doing research so far, Scaia and Cappello found at least 12 individuals interred at Arlington National Cemetery with a Wittenberg connection and/or those who either attended or graduated from the University. They include Capt. Darrell C. Lewis (class of 1999), RADM Benjamin Thurman Hacker (class of 1957), Mary G. Harris, Margaret J. Brennan (class of 1946) and spouse Thomas Brennan (class of 1949), Rodney Leopold Heinze, Brig.-Gen. William Rader, Clifford Chubb, David Leroy Lady (class of 1974), Richard E. Pearson (class of 1949), Eugene Harter (class of 1949), John Vollbreckt (class of 1969), and Brian Lawter (class of 1993).
To read more about some of the Wittenberg alumni interred at Arlington National Cemetery, click here.
If you know of additional alumni interred at Arlington, click here to submit their information.