Freezing temperatures don’t stop volunteers from removing wreaths at Alleghenies National Cemetery


On the freezing morning of January 22, Bonnie Wishner noticed as she exited her garage that the temperature display in her GMC Terrain had dropped from 14 degrees to 10 to 4.

“I said to my husband, how far will he go?” said Wishner of Strabane. “He told me that these vehicles are sold nationwide, so it will show sub-zero temperatures if it’s that cold.”

Her husband Brennan Wishner was right.

The screen showed -3 degrees, then -2.

“I was like, you gotta be kidding me,” she said. “But I kept driving because nothing was going to stop us.”

The couple were joining a group of 150 to 200 volunteers who braved the extreme cold to remove 14,500 wreaths from the graves of veterans in the Alleghenies National Cemetery at Cecil, Washington County. It was -1 when the volunteers gathered at 8 a.m. The event is called “retreat of the crown”.

The wreaths with red bows had been placed by each of the white headstones on December 18 as part of National Wreaths Day across America. The mission of this event was: Remember those we have lost. Honor those currently serving. And teach freedom to the next generation.

Courtesy of Brynnly Schwartz

Six-year-old Jameson Schwartz (right) and his father Steve Schwartz of Eighty Four help remove wreaths for the ‘wreath removal’ event Jan. 22 at the Alleghenies National Cemetery in Cecil, Washington, as part of from Wreaths Across America.

The wreaths are not decorations, said Edward Hajduk, Alleghenies National Cemetery director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at that December memorial service.

“These are wreaths of remembrance,” he said. “It can be a difficult time of year for families missing a loved one.”

Hajduk told volunteers on January 22 that many of the men and women buried in the cemetery have endured extreme weather conditions while serving in their country. Volunteers brought shovels and other tools to remove the crowns, which were frozen to the ground. It took several hours.

“These veterans couldn’t have said it was too cold to go out,” Bonnie Wishner said. “They came out in all weathers.”

It was the couple’s eighth year of volunteering.

Bonnie Wishner is a member of the Washington County Red White and Blue Team, which includes the Blue Knights, the local Masonic Lodge, local firefighters and other community members. The organization hosts a motorcycle ride in the summer to raise money for wreaths.

The wreaths honor veterans of every branch of the service – Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Space Force, Merchant Navy – as well as prisoners of war/MIA.

The Alleghenies National Cemetery performed its first interment on August 15, 2005.

The cemetery covers 292 acres.

Each wreath costs $15. Each has been sponsored for this year’s Wreaths Across America event — the 16th for the Alleghenies National Cemetery, said Brynnly Schwartz, Wreaths Across America coordinator.

The Alleghenies National Cemetery is one of 2,700 cemeteries that participated in all 50 states. There are more than 2 million volunteers nationwide.

Wreaths are removed in January to clean up the cemetery and allow families to lay flowers or hearts for Valentine’s Day and other occasions. The cemetery also holds ceremonies on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

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Courtesy of Michael Brothers Companies

Wreaths are loaded into a dumpster provided by Michael Brothers Companies during the “wreath retirement” event Jan. 22 at the Alleghenies National Cemetery in Cecil, Wash., as part of Wreaths Across America.

Helping to remove the crowns was Michael Brothers Enterprises, based in the Baldwin/Bethel Park area.

Boyd Jones, operations coordinator for Michael Brothers, said he has worked with Wreaths Across America in the past. It was the first year with a dedicated plan to recycle just about everything except red ribbons.

Michael Brothers owners Tom and Rob Milani donated employee time and vehicles. The company also donated skips for boxes when unloading wreaths in December.

“Our owners are the best,” Jones said. “They know these are special wreaths, and they care about these veterans and wanted to do something to give back. It was definitely a success. I’m super excited about this. Wreaths Across America is a great organization.

The volunteers removed the ribbons. The remaining green parts of the wreaths were taken away by Michaels Brothers in four 30-metre dumpsters. The crowns will be shredded to become mulch or compost. The wire portions, which form the crown, will be recycled into other products, Jones said.

New this year, some discarded wreaths were donated to Hillcrest Farms Equine Sanctuary in Washington, Pennsylvania, for its rescued horses and donkeys.

The date for this year is December 17.

Wreaths Across America was started by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester in 1992. He owns Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine. He donated additional wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“We were truly blessed to have so many people come out in the cold to help us out in the freezing cold,” said Bonnie Wishner, who laid wreaths at the graves of relatives as well as for a woman who sent her a letter asking if she could place one for a loved one. “It is important to honor these veterans. We will be back this year on December 17 for the next Wreaths Across America Day.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, [email protected] or via Twitter .


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