This is crunch time for Wreaths Across America, the annual project that puts floral laurels on the graves of deceased military people. The 2013 wreath laying is this Saturday, and more than 400,000 of them are expected to be carried by trucking volunteers to cemeteries all over the USA.
One of the project’s partners is the Truckload Carriers Association, whose vice president of operations, Debbie Sparks, is closely involved. “What I love about doing this is, obviously, I’m not a dispatcher, but I become one every year when I do this,” she said.
She arranges pickups of the special items from the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Me., where workers hand-fashion them from the tips of balsam fir trees. Motor carriers provide trucks and drivers to haul the wreaths to individual cemeteries and distribution centers.
About 3,500 wreaths packed in cardboard boxes constitute a truckload. Truckload and less-than-truckload carriers participate.
“National Wreaths Across America Day is December 14th and we closed orders on the 1st,” Sparks said. "So we have 14 days to get the trucks loaded and and the wreaths delivered.”
Last week she began shipments from Maine using a computer program provided by ITS Dispatch, a Canadian company. A number of motor carriers had signed up to take initial shipments.
Some will participate in a convoy to Arlington National Cemetery, across from Washington, D.C. Forty tractor-trailers will arrive early on Saturday morning and enter the cemetery grounds, whose roads will be temporarily closed to other traffic.
Volunteers will take wreaths from the trucks and place them on graves. Then they gather empty boxes, wrapping materials and pallets and load them back aboard the trailers for a return haul to Maine. All of this is done in about 90 minutes.
Another convoy will head for a veterans cemetery in Houston, Texas, where a similar operation will occur. Last year, that convoy was escorted by motorcycle clubs and police motor officers.
This year there should be 139 truckloads of wreaths, plus however many LTL moves it will take to get smaller shipments to 920 veterans cemeteries across the country.
Truckloads will be broken down at cross-dock operations set up by Tennant Truck Lines in Milan, Ill., and Arrow Truck Sales in Kansas City, Mo. Estes Express Lines and AAA Cooper Transportation will deliver small shipments, each ranging from a few boxes to several pallets.
“Last year we did just over 400,000, and this year it will be up about 20%,” Sparks said. TCA arranges logistics and helps raise funds for the project. The usual donation for a wreath is $15, though community groups can buy them for $10 each, sell them for $15 can keep $5 for their own causes.
Last weekend a call went out from Wreaths Across America for more financial help so it could meet all requests. Groups and individuals can pledge material and financial support through TCA’s website, https://truckload.org/2013-Wreaths-Across-America-Carrier-Volunteers or www.TruckloadofRespect.com.
“It reminds me of the spirit of our industry,” Sparks said of the project and trucking’s involvement. “So many donate in different ways. The Transportation Intermediaries Association gets involved; some members put loads on their load boards and find trucks in the areas involved, and call carriers.
“Some trucking companies say, ‘We’re in the busiest time of the year and we can’t spare any trucks, but we can pay for a shipment.”
Shipping was originally done by Barry Pottle, of Pottle’s Transportation, Hermon, Me. He kept track of it on a spreadsheet, she said. Last year TCA took it over and the software makes it go rather smoothly, even if it’s hectic.
Morrill Worcester, owner of the wreath-making firm, started the annual effort in 1992, Sparks related. He found he had extra wreaths when a large customer didn’t need them; he and his family loaded them in a car and drove to Arlington and placed them on graves in an old section with few visitors.
In subsequent years, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts helped decorate wreaths for annual placement at the cemetery. In 2005 a news organization heard about it and shot aerial photos at Arlington. Those went viral on the internet, and a formal organization sprang from it.
The thousands of volunteers now come from Boy and Girl Scout troops, veterans organizations, active-duty military members and civilians drawn by a desire to serve the cause, Sparks said.
“Part of our job at TCA is to upgrade the image of trucking, and here we are tied into the Pentagon,” she said. “And if that doesn’t improve our image, I don’t know what will. It’s one of trucking’s prouder efforts.”