ARLINGTON, Va. — It is an honored tradition that was almost canceled by the pandemic.
In a typical year today would be the day tens of thousands of volunteers from Wreaths Across America fill Arlington National Cemetery to lay hundreds of thousands of graveside wreaths.
This, however, is not a typical year. Concerns over COVID-19 threatened to scrap the yearly tradition but ultimately, the plan wasn't called off.
Safety precautions mean some things this year were different, but the mission remained the same.
"We always say that a person dies twice," said Bre Kingsbury from Wreaths Across America. "The first time when they take their last breath...and then the second is when their name is spoken out loud for the very last time."
The wreaths are a solemn promise to always remember.
"As we place the wreath we say that service member's name out loud," said Kingsbury.
250,000 wreaths and 250,000 names.
In a typical year, tens of thousands of volunteers would lay them in Arlington National Cemetery.
COVID-19 changed that. The cemetery was closed to the general public this week. Only family pass holders were allowed in.
Brandi Cunliffe, who comes from a military family but is not a pass holder, found that out the hard way when she tried to walk into the cemetery Saturday morning.
"I mean I get it with the coronavirus and everything they have to be extra cautious," she said.
Without the volunteers, staff, family, and the Army Old Guard took a week to place the wreathes.
It was a tall order. There are thousands of graves. But for Kingsbury there was no question it would get done.
The mission is personal.
"I have lost over forty friends, and thirty of whom are buried here behind us," she said.
A dozen were killed in a single incident in 2011, she says, when an RPG shot down an American helicopter in Afghanistan.
To Kingsbury, the wreaths are "a way to make sure that their memory and their legacy stays alive."
Wreaths Across America is a national organization. Arlington National Cemetery saw more than 250,000 wreaths. More than 2,000 cemeteries nationwide participated.
In many places, volunteers were allowed to lay them. All told, Wreaths Across America says 1.7 million wreaths were placed at military graves.