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90,000 new holiday wreaths spark reflection on war

By Dave Alsup, CNN
updated 5:23 PM EST, Sat December 10, 2011
For the 20th year, Wreaths Across America is laying holiday wreaths on headstones at Arlington and in 500 other cemeteries throughout the United States and overseas.
For the 20th year, Wreaths Across America is laying holiday wreaths on headstones at Arlington and in 500 other cemeteries throughout the United States and overseas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wreaths Across America flew Joanne Gutcher to Arlington
  • She had not seen her son's headstone until Saturday
  • She found it hard to fathom the end of the Iraq war
  • Volunteers laid fresh holiday wreaths in cemeteries across America

(CNN) -- Joanne Gutcher sits on the cold ground at Arlington National Cemetery Saturday. For the first time, she is seeing her son's headstone.

Around her, family and friends hold each other, touch the headstone. Among the visitors is Gena Hernandez, who served with Gutcher's son in Iraq. Hernandez believes she wouldn't have made it back without him. He was an excellent gunner.

It's been almost five years since William Joshua Rechenmacher's life ended. The Army specialist was on his second tour of duty with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad when a bomb blew up near his Humvee.

Wreaths Across America flew Gutcher from Jacksonville, Florida, to Arlington. It's the first time Gutcher has been at the cemetery since her son's burial.

On this day, as 90,000 new holiday wreaths are laid at Arlington, Gutcher cannot fathom that U.S. troops are pulling out of Iraq; that the war, at least for America, is at an end.

"I don't know. It just doesn't seem right," she says, pausing to gather her thoughts.

She thinks the government could have ended the war earlier. "It's the price we paid. He knew the costs."

For the 20th year, Wreaths Across America is laying holiday wreaths on headstones at Arlington and in 500 other cemeteries throughout the United States and overseas.

Semitrailers loaded with wreaths pull up around the cemetery as a man shouts wreath-laying instructions to a throng of volunteers, all in coats and gloves. His voice echoes across Section 60, the area of the cemetery dedicated to the those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are Cub Scouts, families, service members and veterans reaching into cardboard boxes, platooning the wreaths across grave sites and onto headstones.

Marine Corps veteran Bill Volk watches a nearby color guard and talks about his grandson, a captain in the Army.

"He was in Iraq for a year," he says. "He's back now. He won't be going to Iraq, but he could possibly be going to Afghanistan. We're hoping and praying he doesn't."

There was reflection on war across America as fresh wreaths adorned cold graves.

Dave Mihalic and 40 other volunteers endured frigid temperatures in the shadows of the Bitterroot Mountains in Missoula, Montana, to lay wreaths in patchy snow covering the local veteran's cemeteries.

"I think we've got one or two from Iraq," he says.

He thinks not so much about war's end but the consequence of service. He has 585 graves to cover at the Fort Missoula Post Cemetery and Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery.

He talks about Medal of Honor winners from the "Indian Wars." He talks about parents who met in North Africa during World War II and the father he buried earlier this year in one of the memorial sites. He talks about the cold.

At the Natchez National Cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi, Oscar Seyfarth says he rode his motorcycle to the ceremony.

"They had this place packed," he says.

On his mind is the Gulf War of 1991. His daughter died of a stroke after serving in the Navy during that war.

"It is what it is," he says. "My youngest son, who is 13, places a wreath on his sister's head stone every year."

Back at Arlington, Matt Bamford brings his own wreath to the cemetery. It's decorated with Snoopy.

"I lost my partner in the war. I lost him in 2010," he says.

He arrives at the grave to find a wreath already laid by his partner's family.

"Amazing," he says. And smiles.

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