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Wreaths Across America: An Honor And A Duty

By: Brad Bentley

Brad Bentley

A University of Alabama graduate with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, Bentley spent 15 years as a trucking Publisher before becoming the Editorial Director for Randall-Reilly's Recruiting Media division.



Pottle’s Transportation driver Bob Sousa shows respect through Wreaths Across America program

Wreaths Across America

Pottle’s Transportation driver Bob Sousa stands near Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery on Wreaths Across America Day.

 “It is so important to get respect for what you do and at the same time give it.” – Estelle Parsons

As an Army veteran with 22 years of active service, Bob Sousa understands respect. Unfortunately, when Sousa started his military career in 1969 during the Vietnam War, soldiers were anything but respected by many Americans. Fortunately, Sousa is now involved with the non-profit organization Wreaths Across America, a program whose purpose is to ‘Remember, Honor and Teach’ about the service and sacrifices of our veterans, active military, and their families.

The Wreaths Across America mission is carried out in part by coordinating wreath laying ceremonies at fallen soldiers’ grave sites on a specified Saturday every December. For years, this occurred only at Arlington National Cemetery, but in 2007, it began expanding to veterans’ cemeteries and other locations in all 50 states and beyond. Part of Wreaths Across America’s rapid growth is the result of the trucking industry’s generosity as many fleets donate transporting the wreaths.

Sousa was introduced to Wreaths Across America through his employer, Bangor, Maine-based Pottle’s Transportation. Sousa is a company driver for Pottle’s, a long-time supporter and an instrumental part of Wreaths Across America’s expansion. “I appreciate being able to represent my company, who gave me the opportunity to show respect and admiration for many that never received it while in uniform,” Sousa stated. “I not only feel that it is an honor to be associated with Wreaths Across America, but given that opportunity, it is my duty.”

This year, truckers were counted on for a little more help with the trucking industry’s first annual rolling tribute. This was kicked off on November 26, 2013, when Wreaths Across America teamed up with the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) and Pilot Flying J to hand out free wreaths to any professional truck driver who wanted one at the Pilot Travel Center in Milford, Conn. Sousa delivered several pallets of wreaths to the truck stop for the event, and local volunteers joined in the efforts to reach as many drivers as possible.

There was a steady flow of traffic all day as drivers received zip ties to attach a wreath to the grill of their truck onsite as an immediate show of support. With hundreds of truckers using their big rigs to deliver a strong message leading up to Wreaths Across America Day on December 14, the hope was that Wreaths Across America could exceed their established goal of placing 135,000 remembrance wreaths at Arlington.

Nationwide, donations to Wreaths Across America were up by 20%, but support for Arlington dipped as more people become involved with wreath-laying ceremonies in their local communities. Sousa said the efforts in Connecticut paid off, as several fellow drivers he talked to were not aware of the program – including some that had served in the military. “Many drivers were shocked that the wreaths were free, but all were appreciative of the efforts to honor our veterans,” Sousa said. “The rolling tribute also received a lot of media coverage and definitely created more awareness for Arlington.”

A few days after the Connecticut event, Sousa was in Maine to pick up a load of wreaths bound for Arlington. He was one of several trucks participating in a week-long convoy, escorted by Patriot Guard Riders, traveling down the East Coast to our nation’s capital. An annual part of the Arlington project, this parade of truckers stops at schools, monuments, and veterans’ homes in numerous communities. This gives Wreaths Across America an opportunity to promote their mission and make sure ‘Remember, Honor and Teach’ is not just a catch phrase.

Sousa says the ‘Teach’ portion is probably the most important to him. “It is important that our children and grandchildren understand they live in the best of all worlds and that there were countless sacrifices that made it possible. My children grew up in the military, so they ‘get it’,” Sousa stated. “My daughter has passed that on to my grandchildren, and they spend a day with us each year on the escorted convoy. When they return to school the next day, they take great pleasure in explaining where they were the day before – and why.”

This was the third consecutive year that Sousa has delivered to Arlington, and he is awestruck each time. He says for anyone who has served in the military, Arlington is one of those places that they have on their ‘Bucket List’. “It is without a doubt the most sobering place in this country. On my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the grounds after I drove through the gate,” Sousa reflected. “It was a virtual sea of white stones in perfectly straight lines. You can’t help but think of the lives of those buried there. I quickly realized that we were there for just that reason, not to mourn but to celebrate and honor life, not death.”

This year, more people than ever were able to honor fallen soldiers, as a surge of last-minute donations resulted in 143,394 wreaths being delivered to Arlington.

Sousa believes you cannot visit Arlington without a special memory that will stay with you forever. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as taking the wreath off the grill so someone can lay one more or it’s something as heartwarming as Mike Marquis, a young Cub Scout, giving you a big hug and a shiny stone to keep for good luck,” he stated. However, Sousa says his most significant Arlington memory will most likely always be Kaye Kelly.

In 2011, he stayed at the cemetery after the other trucks left so he could take in some of the events. When he returned to his truck at section 69, he saw Kaye standing by her parents’ headstone trying to take pictures with her smartphone. He could see that she was struggling, so he offered to help. “Neither of us could get it to work, so I offered to take pictures for her and e-mail them on my way home,” Sousa said. “We spoke for a while, and I realized that she was a frequent visitor and truly loved Arlington. She would go there and leave cut flowers on the stone and then return and replace them regularly.”

Sousa sent her the pictures he took, and after she responded they kept in touch. When she didn’t show for Wreaths Across America Day in 2012, Sousa was concerned. Before he left the cemetery, he laid a wreath on the stone. On the way home, he emailed the pictures to her hoping for a response. A few days later, he received a note from her saying she had simply forgotten.

“This year we stayed in touch, and when I didn’t hear from her this summer I was worried. I tried one more time in late October and received a note from her husband John. Kaye had passed away in September after a brief battle with cancer and would be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in November,” Sousa said. “John and I made plans to meet at Arlington for Wreaths Across America Day in December, but unfortunately didn’t get together. He arrived about 1:30 and didn’t know that we were still there reloading dunnage out of sight.”

Kaye Kelly is now buried in Section 64, just across the road from her parents. Although there was no stone there yet, a wreath was placed at that spot as well as Section 69 where her parents are laid to rest.

Bob received an e-mail from Kaye’s husband, John, the next day. It read:

Bob,

I got there about 1:30 and you had gone. Thank you for all you do, for Kaye and for others.

Kaye was one of Americas’ greatest patriots. Her Dad was Air Force, I was Army; her older son and son in law were Navy, and her younger son a Marine. She loved all things military.

Arlington looked beautiful yesterday. I got really emotional. Again, Thank You.

JJ Kelley

Heartfelt notes like this are proof positive that every headstone has a story and illustrates the impact the Wreaths Across America program has on the families of our nation’s fallen soldiers.

“Wreaths Across America is about so much more than wreath-laying at Arlington, although that is one focus and the most visible,” Sousa added.

When people ask Bob Sousa why he donates 8 days of his life to this program each year, his answer is always the same. He says simply, “How could I not?”

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