The holiday season is a time when many families gather together. But the families of many U.S. military personnel are often separated, and for some, that separation is permanent. Several thousand volunteers recently gathered at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington to support and remember those who paid the ultimate price.
Ilka Halliday takes special care to make sure the Christmas wreath she places at the grave of her son, Christopher Wilson, is just right. Wilson died in a rocket attack in Afghanistan three years ago. He is just one of the service members being remembered at Arlington Cemetery as part of a nationwide project called 'Wreaths Across America.'
Thousands of volunteers turned out to decorate some of the graves at Arlington with wreaths trucked from Maine for the ceremony.
Morrill Worcester, who owns a wreath company in Maine, started the project in 1992. "It's great to be with several thousand of my closest friends. Here we are visiting the families of 300 and some odd thousand," said Worcester. "It's just a great day. I can't believe that the first time I was here 19 years ago there were probably a dozen people and now look here."
The donated and sponsored wreaths include one where Ilka Halliday's son is buried among other U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Chaplain Lt. Colonel. Ken Godfrey says that families feel the loss more deeply at this time of year.
"Obviously that brings up a lot of personal emotions and every family deals with that differently," said Godfrey. "Probably a place where emotion is concentrated the most is in section 60 because so many of our current active duty combat death soldiers and military members are buried over there."
Brian Merry is an Army aviation mechanic who has returned from Iraq. He placed one of the wreaths on the grave of his friend Benjamin Sabban.
"He was an Army medic and stationed at a small fire base and ran into a tough time, a vehicle-borne IED. I was actually in another part of Iraq at the time when it happened and I caught the news a little late," recalled Merry. "And it was just a little tough to comprehend that he was gone."
Paula Davis lost her only son, Justin, in Afghanistan in 2006. She says seeing so many volunteers helps her to cope with the pain.
"The holidays are always difficult and it helps that people have come out, even in the midst of their - you know people out doing their Christmas thing - that they haven't forgotten our loved ones who aren't here for Christmas," said Davis.
She is friends with other women who have lost a family member. They're called Gold Star Mothers. Ilka Halliday says they help her to cope.
"It's like we've never existed without each other," said Halliday. "We are just that close. You know we can be ourselves. We don't have to worry about what other people think. If we want to scream, we scream; if we want to hug, we hug. You know it's great. It's absolutely great."
By the end of the day, 24,000 wreaths are placed on headstones at Arlington. Morrill Worcester says he wants to expand the gesture to include the entire cemetery next year.