At Arlington, a Wreaths Across America Change Aims to Give Families More Peace

Survivors and friends of fallen military members begin a line of volunteers ready to place wreaths at the headstones of Arlington National Cemetery during the annual Wreaths Across America event.
Survivors and friends of fallen military members begin a line of volunteers ready to place wreaths at the headstones of Arlington National Cemetery during the annual Wreaths Across America event Dec. 17, 2016. (EJ Hersom/Defense Department photo)

It'll be a little quieter than usual at Arlington National Cemetery this year as the first holiday wreaths are laid. For the first time, family pass holders will have an opportunity to place memorial wreaths Dec. 12, almost a full week before the volunteers descend for Wreaths Across America Day on Dec. 18. 

While the annual wreath-laying has become a wildly popular seasonal event as crowds flock to both Arlington and national cemetery locations nationwide, the day reserved for pass holders at Arlington will be reminiscent of the first years that wreaths were laid there.

From 1992 to 2005, wreaths were quietly laid in the older sections of the cemetery, where fewer people visited. But after a snow-covered photo made its way around the internet, the venture got national attention. In 2007, Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, was formed, and the laying turned into a nationwide event. 

On the first "Wreaths Across America Day" in 2008, 60,000 volunteers placed more than 100,000 wreaths across the world. Wreaths Across America reached its goal of placing a wreath on every one of the 226,525 gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery in 2014.

In 2021, there are 2,500 locations where wreaths will be laid. But as many volunteers flock to Arlington and other cemeteries to lay these memorial wreaths, the crowds can be overwhelming for Gold Star family members.

Professor Tracey Perez Koehlmoos, widow of Col. Randall "Moose" Koehlmoos, is national secretary of Gold Star Wives of America and past president of the Arlington Chapter of Gold Star Wives. She said the memorial wreath laying in December is stressful for her and her family. Col. Koehlmoos, who served in the U.S. Army, died in Jakarta in 2011 and is buried in Section 60.

One year, she was standing at his grave when a stranger approached her.

"The woman said, 'I am here to place a wreath on Col. Koehlmoos' grave. I went to elementary school with his mother and traveled from Denver,'" Koehlmoos said. "I responded, 'Our son is in line for a wreath right now. He is going to place the wreath here. There are plenty of other worthy men and women here. I can tell you their stories.' Yet the woman was adamant that she traveled from Denver for this cause. It was very stressful."

In years past, claiming the spot to place a wreath on her husband's grave has required meticulous planning and speed. To make it happen, Koehlmoos arrived very, very early to Arlington in a special caravan and parked in a section for families. Then, she ran to her husband's grave while one of her sons got in line for a wreath.  

"This year, this new approach will bring a sense of calm to the men and women who wish to honor their loved ones and skip the circus," she said.

A Wreaths Across America spokesperson said the change started last year, when COVID-19 prohibited the laying of wreaths by the public. 

"A day for Family Pass Holders was planned [in 2020] to allow those families to still have the opportunity to honor their loved ones. The small event was very well received by family pass holders and it is something that Arlington requested to incorporate into the wreath laying effort this year," they said in an email. 

How You Can Participate — Without Traveling to Arlington

With 2,500 locations participating, there are many opportunities outside of Arlington National Cemetery.

Koehlmoos understands why people want to volunteer at Arlington, but also wants them to understand the situation for Gold Star families.

"People travel to ANC with good hearts but don't understand the stress they might cause family members who wish to honor their loved ones," she said.  

Sponsor a Wreath

You can sponsor a wreath for a donation of $15 for one wreath, $30 for two, $75 for five or $150 for 10. Additional amounts of wreaths are also an option. 


There are locations around the world where service members are buried, and there are opportunities to place wreaths at many of them. Consider volunteering at a location close to you; you can find the list of locations here. If your local cemetery does not currently participate, you also can volunteer to become a location coordinator for that site and organize the ceremony. You can get more information on becoming a location coordinator here

Share the Event

Not everyone knows about Wreaths Across America or this event. Consider sharing the event with friends and family on social media, as well as with local groups in your area that may wish to participate.

--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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