Wreaths Across America: Transport America Drivers Honor Fallen Vets
For long-time Transport America driver Robert Harp, and new driver Ronald Satterfield, a trip to deliver Christmas wreaths turned into one of the most meaningful deliveries they’ve ever made.
What began in 1992 with a trailer load of wreaths, decorated by volunteers and laid at the graves of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery has now become a national organization with over 1,422 participating locations (cemeteries in all 50 states) – all focused on the mission to Remember, Honor, and Teach Americans about our fallen veterans.
Wreaths Across America is a nonprofit based in Columbia Falls, Maine, which brings together volunteers every year to lay wreaths at the headstones of fallen soldiers in local and national cemeteries across the country. This year, more than 1.5 million wreaths were presented by an estimated 1 million volunteers during December.
For the first time ever, Transport America volunteered to participate in this annual event. The company donated the use of a truck and 53-foot trailer and a team of drivers.
Robert Harp, from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, who has driven safely for more than 2.5 million miles since joining Transport America in 1998, received a call from his fleet leader to see if he would like to participate in the annual event. Harp, an Army veteran who served for two years in the U.S. Army in 1970 and an additional 25 years in the Army Reserves (seeing limited action in Vietnam and being called up to serve in Operation Desert Storm in 1990), reaching the rank of staff sergeant, considered it an honor to be selected.
Robert was joined by Ronald, a new driver whom Robert has been providing 3.5 weeks of driving instruction before Ronald continues on as a OTR solo driver. Ronald joined Transport America recently after earning his CDL. Ronald served in the U.S. Army himself from 1997 to 2014. During his 17 years in the military, Ronald rose to the rank of sergeant first class and served six tours of duty — one in Kosovo, four tours in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan, where he was injured.
Ronald, who calls Orange, New Jersey as home, joined Transport America through its Military Apprenticeship Program. After driving trucks in the military and serving as a crane operator before joining Transport America, Ronald realized that he had truck driving in his blood. Turns out, his father was a truck driver.
“I came to this realization that I love driving trucks,” Ronald says, “and that driving would allow me to see America, the country that I’ve served throughout my military career.”
In addition to the Military Apprenticeship program, Ronald was attracted to Transport America based on the company’s safety record.
“In the research I did online, Transport America had this brotherhood among its drivers that reminded me of my military experience,” he says. “Their attention to safety and how they care for their drivers is what caught my eye.”
Their journey started in Chicago where Robert and Ronald hit the road in Robert’s specially wrapped, military-themed Freightliner tractor and headed to the company’s support center in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where they switched trailers for a specially wrapped trailer to show Transport America’s support for Wreaths Across America.
From there, they hauled a load to New York, and then picked up another load, which they brought up to Bangor, Maine. Then Robert and Ronald headed to Columbia Falls, Maine, where Wreaths Across America is based. Columbia Falls is located an hour and a half east of Bangor, along the coast, near the Maine-New Brunswick border.
When they arrived at 10 a.m., there were at least 30 trucks waiting to be loaded up. When it came time for Robert and Ronald’s trailer to be loaded at 4 p.m., volunteers filled the trailer with 45,000 wreaths – 500 boxes with 9 wreaths apiece. According to Amber Caron at Wreaths Across America, Transport America was among 250 trucking companies that drove more than 500 loads of wreaths during this year’s event.
After they were loaded, they headed for their first stop, the Amityville Cemetary on Long Island, east of Brooklyn, where they dropped off 14 boxes of wreaths. They were greeted by a volunteer named Nancy who said she was in awe of an 18-wheeler dropping off wreaths for the fallen vets buried at their town’s cemetery.
From there, Robert and Ronald joined a convoy of 11 other trucks who were escorted 15 miles to the Long Island National Cemetery, located in Farmingdale, N.Y. by at least 20 police cars who stopped traffic along the route to allow for the passage of the trucks to the cemetery.
Because of the size of the Long Island National Cemetery, each truck was instructed to go to different locations throughout the cemetery. The cemetery, formed in 1936 to make space for the veterans of World War I, consists of 365 acres and holds the remains of more than 346,000 veterans.
Before the wreaths were unloaded from each truck, all of the drivers and more than 400 volunteers, many of whom were family members of a deceased veteran, gathered in the central part of the cemetery for a ceremony. “Taps” as played on a bugle, and those who wanted to share words of remembrance, were offered the opportunity to share their somber thoughts.
Among the volunteers were dozens of Boy Scouts who came to not only unload the trucks, but to place wreaths at headstones.
To say all of this was a bit overwhelming for Robert and Ronald would be an understatement. Robert laid a few wreaths at some headstones, but Ronald stayed in the trailer helping to unload the wreaths. Both men said they were choking up.
“When you lay a wreath at a tombstone, the Wreaths Across America people don’t want you to just lay a wreath down and go from one burial plot to the next as fast as you can,” says Robert. “They want you to address the fallen vet by the name on their tombstone and reverently place the wreath down as you remember that person.”
“It was very emotional for both of us,” says Robert. “We both have served overseas. We both know soldiers who were wounded or killed. When I placed a wreath at the tombstone of a World War II vet, I was thinking about the brotherhood and sisterhood that everyone who’s served in the military shares. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Both men agreed that they would like to do it again next year and hope that more Transport America drivers will be involved.
“It was breathtaking,” says Ronald. “While I’m new to this company, I thought it was very moving that Transport America would take the time and spend the money to recognize the sacrifice of these veterans. It’s clear they take care of their drivers.”
“I’m very proud of our company,” adds Robert. “It was one of the most rewarding days of my life. I will never forget being a part of this.”