RAYMOND — The light fall of snow did not stop a small group of residents and students from gathering on the town common Monday morning to dedicate some important cargo destined for veterans cemeteries around the country.
Overall, 90 drivers with Walmart distribution centers across the country volunteered their time to participate in the Wreaths Across America program, which will deliver more than 76,000 wreaths to national cemeteries in nine states and the District of Columbia. Three drivers based at the Raymond center were headed to New York, where the next relay of drivers will continue their journeys.
Two of the loads are destined for Fayetteville, Ark., and the third for Coldwater, Mich.
Wreaths Across America was founded by Morrill Worcester of the Worcester Wreath Company of Maine in 1992. Walmart got involved in 2008 and has become the nonprofit organization's largest corporate sponsor, this year donating more than $450,000 in wreaths and transportation.
Drivers from the Raymond distribution center have participated for the last five years, and this is the third year the town has held a ceremonial send-off in the town common.
"We owe so much to our veterans, those who serve, and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice," Frank Bourque, chairman of the board of selectman, said.
Bourque said the town is humbled and honored to hold the solemn ceremony honoring members of the military and the Wreaths Across America effort.
Town Manager Craig Wheeler said the town was doing it's part to carry out the three principles of the Wreaths Across America program — remember, honor and teach.
The latter was represented in the Raymond High School Marching Band, who performed the national anthem, and a group of 24 students representing the Iber Holmes Gove Middle School National Junior Honor Society and Student Council. It is the first time middle school students have participated.
"The two groups wanted to represent the middle school and the send-off for Wreaths Across America and felt it was important to show support for our veterans," adviser Karen Franco said.
The students planned to share their experience with their peers and teachers, in the hopes that even more students will participate next year.
"I think it's important for them to understand how much sacrifice our military and veterans have given for our country, and it's important for them to carry on the tradition of patriotism, and it's a great experience for them," Franco said.
Eighth-grader Josiah Lemay, 14, said he gets chills when he thinks of all the people who have died for the country and how grateful he is to live in a nation relatively free of danger and international threat.
Brigid Auclair, 13, said the event reminded her how lucky they are that so many volunteer to protect the country, so not everyone has to join the military.
All three volunteer drivers from the Walmart distribution center this year are veterans, including Andrew Maillet of Turner, Maine, who served in the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1990.
Maillet teared up when asked why he had volunteered to drive.
"The lives of a lot of young men are changed with the service to our country, and a lot of them never come back," Maillet said. "I was fortunate to come back, and it's the least I can do for my fellow soldiers."
He said all of their cargo is important, but Monday's load was the most important he had ever carried, knowing the destination of each wreath is the grave of someone who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Out of 165 employees in the transportation department at the local distribution center, 44 are military veterans, who always get the first chance to volunteer.
General transportation manager Patrick Maloy said they never have any trouble finding volunteers.
"I think for them to be able to give back and show their appreciation for the veterans who have gone before them is important," Maloy said. "It tugs at your heartstrings."
The convoy was led out of Raymond by Selectman Wayne Welch, his team of horses and town and local store officials in an antique carriage under a giant American flag hoisted by Raymond fire trucks.
On Saturday, wreath-laying ceremonies will be held around the country, including in Boscawen at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery, where 1,500 wreaths will be laid by volunteers.