Dec. 14, 2020
By Matt Smith, Walmart Corporate Affairs
The holiday season is generally a time for celebration, but for many military families, it’s also a time of remembrance.
For Patrick Simmons, losing a brother in arms on 9/11 motivated him to help families and friends all over the country remember the fallen by supporting Wreaths Across America. Even though COVID-19 has made things a bit different this year, the charity is committed to laying wreaths, and Simmons is still leading the charge of Walmart’s support.
Over the past three decades, the tradition of laying wreaths on the gravesites of military service members has grown tremendously. But when Walmart began its involvement in 2008, the “Across America” part of the wreath-laying tradition was just taking shape.
At the time, Simmons was a regional transportation manager working in the Northeast part of the U.S. He heard about a charity in Harrington, Maine, as he was watching TV. A feature aired about the Wooster Wreath Company and a charity they ran called Wreaths Across America. They had a mission to put a wreath on every gravesite of a fallen military service member, but in those days, they were far from their goal.
“They were talking about 9/11 locations,” Simmons remembered. “I had a friend when I was in the military that I actually went to Ranger school with…he actually ended up getting killed in The Pentagon on 9/11.”
Simmons served together with his friend in the 2nd Infantry Brigade in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They were good friends, and their families attended the same church.
“He was a tough and solid leader, and a great dad,” Simmons said.
Major Simmons went on to serve for almost 10 years in the Army and Army National Guard. He served as an Armor and Cavalry Officer and in the Special Forces. He’s proud of his own service, and when he saw what the charity was doing with the 9/11 memorials, he instantly wanted to be a part of it. So, he reached out to see what he and Walmart could do to help.
He didn’t want to just help locally, though. He knew that Walmart’s size, scale and sizeable trucking fleet could help scale Wreaths Across America to expand well outside of the Northeast corner of the U.S.
In 2008, the first year of Walmart’s involvement, Wreaths Across America supported just over 90 national cemeteries with close to 95,000 wreaths. This year, the charity has grown to support 2,200 locations worldwide by helping to donate, deliver and place well over 2.2 million wreaths.
Walmart continues to support the effort and is in the second year of a three-year, $450,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. In addition to that, Walmart Supply Chain donates the time and service of 16 tractor-trailers that will drive 30,000 miles delivering wreaths in support of Wreaths Across America. Over the past 13 years, Walmart has donated $6 million to the charity. It turns out, Simmons was right. Walmart’s size and scale has been a big help over the years.
With COVID-19, things have to be a little different this year. The 18-wheeler convoys that make up the educational whistle-stop tour that ends up in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the 9/11 memorial in Pennsylvania won’t be able to take place because of the pandemic. And the number of volunteers it takes to lay wreaths in one day makes practicing safe social distancing extremely difficult.
But Simmons and team are still as committed as ever to making sure families can honor their fallen U.S. military service members at their final resting places this year. Instead of laying all the wreaths on one day, wreath-laying activities have expanded to encompass a full four days, Dec. 16-19.
Simmons also makes sure that there is a wreath on his fallen friend’s gravesite each year, but he can’t always make it to Arlington National Cemetery where his friend was laid to rest. This is one of those years, so Simmons has already asked one of the Walmart Private Fleet drivers making a delivery to Arlington, Virginia, to take the time to lay a wreath in his stead.
This year has had plenty of obstacles to overcome, but Simmons uses the memory of his friend to keep in mind how much those being honored have given up for our freedoms. He believes it’s just as important to support military family and friends this year as they remember those they’ve lost.
“You know, they all have families. They all have a story,” Simmons said. “It’s just a good way to honor those folks, especially at Christmas time.”