In December 2005, a photographer traveled to the Arlington National Cemetery to take some pictures.
As the shutter of the camera went off, what the photographer just captured was a field of wreaths laid upon the gravestones of fallen soldiers amongst a cloud of snow. The photo went viral and Wreaths Across America, once a family tradition, was founded. Sports & Service sat down with Director, Military and Veteran Outreach Joe Reagan to talk about the organization's mission, how and when it all began, and what he hopes the organization can accomplish in the future.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Can you tell me about Wreaths Across America? How did it get started?
It's interesting. Wreaths Across America started as really a family tradition. Our founder, Morrill Worcester, owns a wreath-making business. Back in 1992, he had about 5,000 extra wreaths left over at the end of the season and he was trying to figure out what to do with them. He remembered when he was a young man, he had won a trip to Washington D.C. and one of the things that had really stuck with him over the years was his visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Long story short, he decided that he wanted to take those wreaths, go down to Arlington National Cemetery, and lay them on the headstones of the veterans that were buried there. So he did that with his family and a small group of friends, and that largely continued year after year until about 2005.
When they went out [to lay the wreaths] that year, there was a staff photographer that was there because it had snowed. So the staff photographer from Arlington took a picture and captured all these wreaths on the headstones in the middle of the snow and it went viral. People started calling and sending money, saying they wanted to support [the tradition] and wanted to do it in their communities. The decision was made that it would not be right for the for-profit entity to be taking that money. So, they spun off the nonprofit Wreaths Across America with a mission to remember, honor, and teach. So since 2007 when that happened — that was when the organization was actually founded — Wreaths Across America has continued to grow and expand from those 5,000 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. This past year in 2022, we laid 2.7 million wreaths over 3,700 locations nationwide. When you think of the scale of what those numbers look like, it's impressive. What I think is truly impressive is the individual stories.
Every one of those wreaths represents an individual story and that's something that we've really tried to focus on. National Wreaths Across America Day is one day in December and that's the remembered part of that mission, but when we think about honoring and teaching, that's something we really focus on throughout the course of the year. What people don't often realize about Wreaths Across America is, first of all, Karen Worcester, who is our executive director, has always strongly believed that it would be disingenuous if we just laid wreaths on the headstone of veterans with nothing to support living veterans. So through our partnership programs, we've generated about $21 million to go back to other nonprofits with like-minded missions to support living veterans in those very communities where Wreaths Across America Day is happening.
That's something that I personally, as a veteran, am very proud of. To see the impact that this can have, not only in bringing the community together to talk about the experiences of our service members, veterans, and families, but financially what that can do for a lot of these nonprofits. Each year, we have a theme and our theme last year that the beginning of 2022 was to find a way to serve, and as part of that, we launched an expanded initiative for the teaching part of our mission — that included a full K-12 curriculum to help engage with young people and to help give educators, whether they be in public school, private school, or do home school, it doesn't matter, access to free tools that talk about the experiences of veterans and what being a veteran mean, all in an age-appropriate way. A lot of that content is coming from our various partners so that's kind of the nexus of where we are today, this year (2023).
This year's theme, serve and succeed, builds on last year’s. One of the things that we've seen is, and I'll say that I'm guilty of this as well, we often spend a lot of time talking about the challenges facing our veterans, and we don't really do a good job, and I think veterans are particularly guilty of this, of really highlighting the success that exists within our veteran community. So what we're really trying to do this year is talk about those success stories of how people have found that success. That's kind of where we're at today, and we're excited to launch that mission and move forward.
Just the concept of laying those wreaths, it's so incredible and gets you all choked up. You mentioned that you yourself are a veteran. Can you tell me about your time in service?
So I, admittedly, was quite the screwball in high school. I knew that I was aware of that and had really come to understand, as I was looking at colleges, that I probably would not succeed in a traditional college environment. It was a friend of mine’s dad who recommended a private military college in Vermont, known as Norwich University. When he sat me down and told me this, I was like, “What's that?” He laughed, looked at me, he said, “It doesn't matter. I already wrote the letter, you're going.” I visited the campus probably at the end of my junior year and absolutely fell in love with the place, and knew that's where I was going to succeed.
At the time, I had no intention of joining the military. [Norwich] was a private military school — it offered a level of structure and leadership training that I thought would help me with my civilian career path, which at the time, I wanted to be a teacher. That's how I started my college career in the fall of 2000. When 9/11 happened, I was a sophomore and about 50 percent of my classmates had an ROTC scholarship and were already slated to enter the military upon graduation. I had an opportunity to interact with a lot of folks that had served — prior to going to Norwich, I really didn't know anyone that had been in the military — so by the end of my sophomore year, I decided this is the path that I wanted to pursue as well.
So upon graduating from Norwich, I accepted a commission into the Army as an infantry officer and I went to Fort Benning. I spent about 10 months there going through infantry officer basic courses, airborne school, ranger school, and other small courses along the way. Then, I moved up to Fort Drum, New York where I was a platoon leader with the 10th Mountain Division.
It was within about two months of arriving at Fort Drum when our unit deployed to Afghanistan. So I was in Afghanistan from February 2006 to June 2007 and was a platoon leader, so really on the ground running missions day in and day out. After that deployment, I transitioned over to the staff side and took over running intelligence operations for our battalion. After I got back from the second deployment, I wound up in a strategic job in Washington, D.C., and a number of different things eventually convinced me that it was time to step away and pursue a civilian career path.
The civilian career path has its ups and downs, and lefts and rights, but I really found that my role here at Wreaths Across America is tremendously rewarding. I'm able to now share the stories of those men and women that I served alongside, and I know that means a lot to them because when we talk, a lot of them will say they don't have a platform to share these stories, but to hear someone telling their story is really important to them. That's something that keeps them going each and every day.
You mentioned your role at Wreaths across America. You're As Director of Military and Veteran Outreach, what does your job entail?
It's a little bit different every day, and I think that's the best part of it. In a nutshell, my role is to connect our mission at Wreaths Across America with other military and veteran organizations, not only to promote what they're doing, but also to find those tools for us to collaborate upon to help forward their mission. Like I said from the beginning, this has been a core part of Wreaths Across America's philosophy; we work better together and that this repaying should not just be a one-day event, but it really should be the start of a journey of making that connection, promoting a better understanding of the veteran and military experience, and helping folks that might not necessarily have that direct connection with the military gain a better understanding, and I know that's going to be especially important this year.
Coming off some of the challenges that Recruiting Command has had, when you talk to young people about why the military isn't an option for them, it has nothing to do with the military — it comes down to a misunderstanding. We think strongly that by elevating the voices of everyday veterans, that's a great opportunity to inspire the next generations to serve in our military and to inspire Americans, and in general, help realize exactly the scope of sacrifice that's been made to give us what we have.
I heard there was talk of starting a fitness initiative or you're working on a fitness initiative; could you tell me a little bit about that?
Well, I wouldn't say we're starting a fitness initiative. We are looking at more initiatives to help veterans stay moving. So fitness for veterans. It's one of those things you don't think about, Wreaths Across America being a physical event. It's not a 5K or anything like that, but, let me put it into perspective. I think during Wreaths Across America Day when I was at Arlington National Cemetery, I probably logged somewhere close to 20,000 steps. You're moving and you don't realize it. And that's the thing.
What gets me all the time is when I talk to veterans, especially older veterans, they sometimes fall into this rut of saying, “Once you get old, you can't do those things anymore,” and it's not true. I hope that when folks have that journey through Wreaths Across America, as they find themselves creeping into the cemetery in the middle of December, they don't realize it, but that's movement, that's exercise and that's important.
We do have a series of 5Ks, and this year we're looking to expand that a little bit more into a bunch of virtual races so that folks nationwide can participate. Because our headquarters is up in Northern Maine, that can be difficult to get through sometimes, but we do want to provide folks with that opportunity to do stuff like a 5K. If we look at larger veterans health initiatives, that's something at risk across America. We would want to be able to share and promote because we do have a lot of veterans that follow us and pay attention to us, and if we can provide them with those resources to make those small steps for healthier living, we want to do that.