SARATOGA -- Dozens of volunteers drifted quietly among the rows of gravestones in Saratoga's historic Madronia Cemetery on Saturday, placing red-bowed balsam wreaths at the graves of veterans of the nation's half-dozen wars over the past 150 years.
"This is our payback opportunity," said Navy veteran and Saratoga native Jim O'Donnell, who in the 1960s flew Lockheed P-3 Orion turboprop aircraft from a base in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay. "What better way to give back, and remember the people you served with."
The 1,020 wreaths, purchased through donations, arrived in Saratoga last week aboard a deep-blue 18-wheel tractor-trailer, decorated with a large American flag and driven across the country by a Vietnam veteran. But planning started months ago.
It is part of the national Wreaths Across America event, with wreath-laying ceremonies planned at more cemeteries across the nation, including the Tomb of the Unknowns and the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
It was also a time to honor troops fighting and dying in current conflicts.
The number of wreaths increased from last year's tally of 973, representing the climbing toll of older World War II veterans.
The timing -- a cool damp early morning at the graceful cemetery, named after the red-trunked madrone trees on the site -- coincided with the organization's noontime national ceremony in Virginia, when thousands of volunteers placed 140,000 wreaths on the iconic white marble headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
The public ritual connects veterans and their families across several wars and generations. At the ceremony, representatives of each branch of service laid a ceremonial wreath in memory of those who served and are serving.
The graves -- each with their own story -- were identified Friday by volunteers, and then marked with blue tape. Participants included the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution and Boy Scouts.
They ranged from a lichen-encrusted marble of Civil War infantryman John C. Fitts to the bronze plaque of Sept. 11 victim Mark Bingham, a civilian who died aboard the hijacked Flight 93.
The holiday tradition began two decades ago when Maine resident Morrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Co. had some leftover wreaths at the close of the holiday season.
Remembering a boyhood trip to Arlington National Cemetery, he trucked 5,000 wreaths to be placed at the headstones of an older section of the cemetery. What began as one man's gesture has now grown into a nonprofit organization. This year, more than 350,000 wreaths were bought and donated.
Similar ceremonies were held at San Francisco National Cemetery at San Francisco's Presidio and Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno.
The ceremony is a symbol that the nation hasn't forgotten, amid the celebrations of the holiday, volunteers said.
"These wreaths represent our commitment as a united America," said volunteer leader Bill Snider, the son of a veteran, "to remember the legacy of sacrifice of those who have served all of us in the armed forces of our great nation."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.
Saratoga's Wreaths Across America volunteer leader Bill Snider can be reached at email@example.com. Volunteer co-leader Marguerite McAfee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations are welcomed. Go to www.wreathsacrossamerica.org for details.