On Saturday, December 18, 2021, students and faculty in the clinical mental health and military and veterans counseling programs participated in Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery. Organized by Elizabeth Burgin, coordinator of the military and veterans counseling program, the cohort gathered at 6:00 am and began laying wreaths at service members’ headstones. They carried wreaths on their arms from the semi-trucks parked across the cemetery and covered as many graves as they could. Once at a gravestone, the cohort members would say the name of the service member as they laid a wreath on their gravestone and thanked them for their service.
They laid wreaths in Section 60, where Burgin was personally connected, able to thank the service members who stood alongside her husband when he served. In this section, also laid to rest, was Colin Powell alongside the service members who did not come home after the extraction in Afghanistan this past summer.
Burgin reflected on what it meant to see all of these service members’ graves together in one place. “It was such a symbol of collectivism,” she said. “That uniform is very uniting and a core part of who they are.” And as many other organizations and groups assisted in the efforts that day, Burgin noted, “It reminded me of the humanity we all share. Everyone was so warm, generous and respectful.”
This was also a special opportunity for the cohort to embody the purpose of their work and connect to the community they aim to serve.
“Our program is focused on the military community,” said Burgin. “And as mental health providers, we will be there for them on the other side after they serve. So, these remembrance events are important because it allows you to be involved in opportunities to be culturally sensitive, give visibility, and give families a chance to connect with one another, especially when they are a community where their natural supports and protective factors are always changing.”
The event was incredibly meaningful for the students, especially for those in the cohort who are service members themselves.
“Participating in Wreaths Across America was a way to honor those who have gone before us, reaffirm my commitment to the program and to the military and veteran population I aim to serve, and continue the healing,” reflected Pedro Alicea M.Ed. ’24. “I had not visited Arlington National Cemetery in well over a decade. While laying the wreaths I thought of the many Naval Academy classmates I’ve lost over the years, and of my brother, also a veteran, and the friends and comrades he lost as well. I was mindful that especially with some of the older tombstones, as I placed a wreath and said a name, I may be the only person left alive to utter that veteran’s name; I was humbled to have that opportunity.”
Another member of the cohort, Jackie Kotoriy M.Ed. ’23, also found the event impactful and humbling. “Placing wreaths at the National Arlington Cemetery with Wreaths Across America is an event that holds such a special place in my heart as it is a humbling opportunity that allows me to pay my respects and give back to such a deserving community that I care deeply for,” she said. “This past year it was a particularly special event because I got to lay wreaths with my fellow peers in the program. After spending the past semester getting to know my inspiring colleagues and their unique connections to the military, it was such a great experience to honor the brave individuals of our nation's military together as we all share a deep appreciation for the hard work and sacrifices of the military community."
The event was an especially personal one for Kord Basnight '85, M.Ed. '23. He was able to visit the grave of his son Michael, who died just a few days after being born while Basnight was serving as a young Army Captain in Germany. "My wife and I will be buried with Michael when our time comes, which gives me great comfort," he said. "Meanwhile, we embrace any chance to visit, and Wreaths Across America was an excellent opportunity to do so."
This cohort brings together diverse perspectives, unique expertise, and a collective purpose to want to be a healing force. They hope to continue to participate in Wreaths Across America in years to come, and Burgin extends the invitation to the W&M community, “There is always room at the table to support our service members and their families.”