AUGUSTA — Looking out at the hundreds of attendees at a veterans appreciation rally held as part of the Wreaths Across America annual trek, Maine Adjutant General Douglas Farnham said one couldn’t help but be darn proud to be a Mainer.

“Mainers have always understood the importance of service, and have always served,” Farnham said Sunday at the Augusta Civic Center, noting that Maine is the state with the third-highest percentage of its population to serve in the military. He said the Wreaths Across America event, in which a convoy of trucks bringing wreaths to be placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery is often greeted, as it travels across country, by flag-waving people on roadsides showing their support, has “become one of the most visible and recognizable (pieces of) evidence that we have not forgotten,” about the sacrifices of veterans.

This year, Wreaths Across America loaded tractor-trailers with more than a quarter-million donated Maine-made wreaths to be placed on the graves of fallen service members in Arlington.

Maine first lady Anne LePage, who has participated in the wreath delivery convoy for five consecutive years, described the convoy as a demonstration of sheer patriotism.

“You cannot describe how proud you feel, when you pull into a school, and you see everyone standing together, waving flags, feeling proud to be an American,” LePage said, choking back tears as she continued to speak. “For a brief time we forget about everything that separates us. And the words united we stand, divided we fall never seemed so true.”

The convoy of trucks, escorted by a dozen decorated Chevy SUVs, numerous police cars, and a couple of motorcycles, carrying the wreaths to be placed on service members’ graves made a stop in Augusta for a rally to show appreciation for veterans Sunday afternoon at the Augusta Civic Center.

The convoy of trucks and other decorated vehicles annually makes its way from Downeast Maine to Arlington, generally taking about a week and making stops along the way at schools, American Legion halls and other public places for veteran-focused events.

Many of the hundreds of people attending the event Sunday waited outside in the cold for more than an hour for the convoy, running later than scheduled, to arrive just before 3 p.m., and come into the parking lot of the civic center under a large American flag held above the road by ladder firetrucks from Augusta and Winthrop.

Doug Fleury, of Farmingdale, arrived around 1 p.m. and waited for the trucks, wreaths, and veterans and Gold Star family members traveling with the convoy to arrive.

“I just thought it’d be pretty neat to see the trucks rolling in,” he said. “I just wanted to see them and show support.”

J.P. “Hack” Doerr, of Mechanic Falls, rode his Honda touring motorcycle to the event, though he wasn’t traveling with the convoy. The Army veteran of the Vietnam War said he just wanted to take a ride, and show support for the wreaths. He plans, to join other Mainers on Wednesday in placing wreaths on the graves of service members in Maine cemeteries on Wreaths Across America Day.

Lined up together in the side parking lot at the civic center sat well more than a dozen Jeeps, some decorated with American flags.

Todd Burbank, of Winslow, a leader of Backcountry Jeep Club, said the group of Jeep enthusiasts at the event were from about a half-dozen Jeep clubs from across the state, and they came because they wanted to show their support for veterans.

“We like to try to give back to the community,” said Lisa Pinkham, of Damariscotta, of the Coastal Maine Jeep Girls organization.

The donation of 5,000 wreaths to Arlington by Worcester Wreath Company owner Morrill Worcester in 1992 spawned the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America, which runs it now and which has multiple Worcester family members on its board of directors. All the wreaths are purchased from Maine’s Worcester Wreath Co., which was selected through a bidding process, according to Amber Caron, director of communications for Wreaths Across America. The organization provides wreaths to be placed on graves of soldiers across the country on Dec. 15, totaling some 1.8 million wreaths.

The wreaths put on soldiers’ graves are sponsored by people across the country who pay for the wreaths, which start at $15 each. Organizers said Sunday they are still short of the number of wreaths they’ll need for Arlington.

This year the group also shipped more than 9,000 wreaths to Normandy, to be placed on the graves of U.S. soldiers there.

Becky Christmas, American Gold Star Mothers national president, whose son died in service to the country, encouraged people to embrace Wreaths Across America’s theme for this year’s event, which is “Be their witness.” She said that means sharing the stories of fallen service members with others, and also asking veterans you meet about their story.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins, who was given a large wreath by Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, wished convoy participants merry Christmas and a safe trip to Arlington.

The rally closed with a concert by the U.S. Army Field Band’s Six String Soldiers, who kicked off their set by playing “Truck Driving Man.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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