ARLINGTON, VA — Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), retired commander at the fabled Navy SEAL Team Six and an Iraq War veteran, was among the thousands of volunteers at the Arlington National Cemetery placing commemorative garlands on veteran headstones for Wreaths Across America Day.
As cool fog covered the Arlington National Cemetery early Saturday, Zinke blended in with the many other volunteers wearing military uniforms while he waited in line for more than two hours to get a fresh evergreen wreath to lay on one of the 230,000 veteran headstones there and take part in a nearly quarter century old tradition for the first time.
“Like everyone else I waited in line. I was very glad to get my wreath. I was surrounded by heroes and glad to be waiting in line,” the congressman told Breitbart News.
“It was encouraging because you hear all these negative things about America. If that reflects Americans’ values, which I believe it does, it was a wonderful experience. I think that everyone should make it a point to go to a veteran cemetery and pay tribute to those who have fallen and those who are fighting,” he added. “I think it’s also important to honor not only our veterans, but their families.”
Zinke, who served more than 23 years and was deployed a half-dozen times himself, noted that the veterans interred at the cemetery are “not Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jew, or Muslim,” adding, “Veterans are Americans.”
The annual wreath laying event at the national cemetery is organized by the charity Wreaths Across America, which does not accept government funds and relies solely on donations.
As he walked along the graves, Zinke was reminded that many of the fallen warriors buried there are young men who made the “tremendous sacrifice” of never having a family of their own.
Zinke said he attended the event on his own, without coordinating with Wreaths Across America.
“Walking away I felt good that America is in good hands, that people still care,” said Zinke, who commanded over 3,500 special operations forces in Iraq. “That Boy Scout troops and family members are well aware of the sacrifice. I felt good to be in America and proud to be a veteran. I think the organization that helped — Bravo Zulu (‘well done’).”
Rep. Zinke’s daughter is a reserve Navy diver and his Navy SEAL son-in-law recently deployed overseas for his tenth deployment.
He attended the event with members of his staff, telling Breitbart News that he may have more veterans in his staff than any other lawmaker in Congress.
“I have, I would think, probably the most number of veterans than any staff in Congress, and that’s by design because, again, I think veterans you know are red, white, and blue and veterans want to fix America,” he explained. “I haven’t gone through and run a poll of the different staffs, but I would be surprised if there’s anyone that has more veterans than I do.”
Thousands of volunteers joined Zinke at the national cemetery this year.
“I’m here to honor Marines I served with and any other fellow veteran who served his country,” said Carl Smith, a Marine Corps veteran, looking solemn as he stared at the rows of gravestones at Section 60 — reserved for those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I get very emotional,” said visitor Alissa Hunt, right before she broke down in tears. “Particularly, when you consider how many of these brave men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
“For me as a veteran, it’s a bittersweet moment,” added Juan Salmeron, who served in Afghanistan. “I am able to honor those who served, but it is also heartbreaking that many of those I served with are now here.”
The wreath laying ceremony at the national cemetery started in 1992 with 5,000 wreaths donated by Morrill Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine.
In 2007, Mr. Worcester founded Wreaths Across America, which coordinates wreath laying ceremonies at over 1,000 veteran cemeteries and other sacred places across the United States and 24 locations on foreign soil on a specific Saturday every December.
In 2008, Congress unanimously recognized Wreaths Across America Day, which falls on the second or third Saturday of December — this year it was Dec. 12.
The charity was facing a 30,000 wreath deficit for Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 27.
Karen Worcester, the executive director for the charity, came on the Breitbart News Daily on Nov. 30 when the group still needed to cover a shortfall of 18,000.
Thanks in large part to Breitbart News Daily listeners, the organization was able meet and exceed its goal of placing wreaths on all the headstones at the national cemetery. A very emotional Worcester thanked Breitbart News Daily for its support.
Wreaths Across America was able to purchase extra wreaths this year to honor the cremated remains of thousands of veterans at the national cemetery’s columbarium.