DANVILLE — It’s a 2,000-mile journey Joey Slaughter is sure to never forget.
Slaughter, owner of Blue Ridge Transport, a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and sergeant major in the Virginia National Guard, volunteered to participate in Wreaths Across America and deliver thousands of Christmas wreaths that were placed Saturday on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
This was the first year Slaughter has participated in the annual event.
“I’ve been asked before, ‘What was your most memorable load?’ That used to be a tough question to answer, but not anymore as this load to Arlington National Cemetery easily becomes my most memorable load and will probably stay that way,” Slaughter said of his experience.
The journey involved Slaughter driving all the way to Maine to pick up the wreaths, back to Washington to deliver them and then returning home to Danville. In all, there were 60 tractor-trailer loads of Christmas wreaths delivered to the 400,000 graves at Arlington.
During the 750-mile trek from Maine to Washington, Slaughter said he was in a convoy — led by the Patriot Guard Riders — of trucks that stopped people along the way to educate them about veterans groups. On Saturday, about 35,000 people showed up to volunteer to place wreaths on the graves, Slaughter said.
“I placed a few wreaths myself and in the process became emotional as I saw the thousands of people honoring the quiet graves,” Slaughter said. “I can only imagine the heroic lives that are represented on some of those headstones.”
Slaughter received a lot of local help and sponsorship to make the trip possible. He works with Freight Liner Trucks and maintains the blog for the company’s website. They agreed to sponsor the fuel costs for him to get from Maine to Arlington.
Another local business, LEI Transport, provided him with a trailer at no cost in order for him to pick up and transport the wreaths. Slaughter needed a closed box trailer to haul the wreaths, and LEI vice president Brandon Williams provided a trailer at no cost.
Williams said he’s known Slaughter for about 15 years, and they recently reconnected through LinkedIn. Williams said Slaughter told him about the project and asked about leasing a trailer to haul the wreaths.
LEI has been in business since the 1970s and has a long history of trying to help worthy causes, Williams said. An alumnus of Hargrave Military Academy and a strong supporter of the military, Williams said he recognized what a great cause Slaughter was involved with and donated the use of the trailer.
“I thought it was a worthy cause, and the honor was all mine,” Williams said.
Wreaths Across America began in 1992, Slaughter explained, when Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, had a surplus of wreaths at the end of the holiday season. He remembered a childhood trip to Arlington and decided to take the opportunity and honor the country’s veterans, Slaughter continued.
It didn’t really gain momentum until 2005 when some pictures were posted that spread online. Slaughter was surprised by how few people knew about the event. In 2013, more than 500,000 wreaths were delivered to almost 900 veteran cemeteries nationwide, Slaughter said.
There is a specified Saturday every December when the wreaths are placed on the graves. They are all unloaded by hand, distributed and placed on the graves.
“After the event, I just stood in awe of the beauty that the Christmas wreaths brought to those thousands of straight-lined headstones stretching as far as the eye could see,” Slaughter said.