ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - The rain that fell on Arlington National Cemetery on Monday did not wash away the excitement and gratitude of hundreds of volunteers who worked to beautify the solemn resting place of fallen soldiers.
Nearly 400 adults, accompanied by 48 of their children, took the day off from landscaping companies in 29 states to help beautify the grounds at the famous cemetery. Adults pruned and braced trees, aerated soil and put down lime, while the children planted perennials. A local horticulturalist also was on hand to teach the children about the caterpillars and other insects they found.
Heather Huddleston, a volunteer from Windermere, Fla., explained the significance of the cemetery to her son Carter, 8.
"Look at all the gravestones. You can see all the different people who are here because they were in the military," Huddleston said while pointing at one of the markers. "You can see where they were from."
"From the Marine Corps," Carter said, spotting a gravestone from the distance.
In at least her fifth year volunteering, Heather said coming to Arlington every year makes her feel that "we grow together."
"We get to enjoy this event together, and we get to see the plants that we planted," she said.
Shelby Wanzor, 10, of Atlanta, and Abby Bradley, 11, of Falmouth, Mass., wrote winning essays that earned them a chance to lay wreaths during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Abby said she was inspired to volunteer by her grandfather, a late World War II Marine veteran. He would "be excited that I'm doing this for my country, and he'll be happy for me," she said.
Michelle Mercurio flew in from Jacksonville, Fla., to help fix up the cemetery for a third time. She said her husband, Timothy B. Mercurio, served as a Marine in the Gulf War. Her second cousin, Benjamin Castiglione, served with the Navy and died in Afghanistan in Sept. 3, 2009.
"I think that we need to do more for the military. More for the families and the fallen soldiers and the wounded warriors," Mercurio said. "Those are the people that really need it the most and have given the most for us."
Mercurio's employer, the mineral production company, Imerys, in Roswell, Ga., donated the lime that volunteers spread on the cemetery grounds.
"It's a small token of appreciation," Mercurio said. "It's something small that we can do to give back to all of those people and their families who have given the greatest sacrifice, the greatest loss."
The rain and tornado warnings that had gone out for the greater Washington area did not stop the volunteers, some of whom arrived at the cemetery as early as 6 a.m.
Phil Fogarty, from Euclid, Ohio, has organized the event since its inception 16 years ago for the Professional Landcare Network.
"There's a little bit of us thinking about the military in all weather conditions having to go out and do their job," Fogarty said. "We will do our job in whatever weather conditions we have to deal with today."