As Derrick Whittle saw the crowd gathered along the Wreaths Across America route in Maine, he spotted a toddler poking an American flag through a sunroof. “When I saw that, I wished I could have stopped and expressed my thanks for their support,” he said.
The crowds who gather to cheer the drivers on are a big reason why Whittle cherishes the chance to participate in the Wreaths Across America convoy. This week, Whittle is making the Wreaths Across trek from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery as part of the convoy for the third time.
Every December, Wreaths Across America—the storied effort to decorate every military grave in the country with a wreath of remembrance—brings supportive onlookers out in droves. They flank the route rain or shine, waving flags, honking, cheering.
Whittle, a longtime driver for Cargo Transporters, Inc., headquartered in Claremont, N.C., savors the moment. Though he has worked as a truck driver for 39 years, Wreaths Across America evokes a poignancy that can hardly be replicated on Whittle’s daily route. The four years he spent in the U.S. Coast Guard taught him the true meaning of sacrifice and honor, and they are the very creeds that make Wreaths Across America a special annual tradition.
For Wreaths Across America Drivers, Safety is Paramount
Driving in the convoy with 10 other trucks requires even more vigilance than a normal day on the job, Whittle said. Fortunately, Whittle’s years as a law enforcement officer in the Coast Guard, where he was awarded for being an expert in firearms, instilled in him a heightened sense of awareness that protects him as a driver.
Image: Hans Spiegel
“When you are driving in a convoy, you have to be extra attentive, extra careful,” Whittle said. “You have to know who’s in front of you and who’s behind you. You have to use your best judgment to maintain the right amount of space between your vehicle and the one ahead of you. On the open road, you can increase your following distance as much as you want. In the convoy, you can’t do that, so you definitely have to be more aware than usual.”
All of the trucks that are part of the convoy travel together. Whittle strives not to crowd the truck ahead of him yet stay close enough to prevent cars from entering the convoy. Turns along the route tend to be narrow as well. “You have to drive much more cautiously than usual, no doubt about it,” Whittle said. “You need a better reaction time to compensate for errors that may occur.”
Video Provides Added Protection During the WAA Convoy
Whittle never has had a collision on a Wreaths Across America route, but he finds comfort in having the Lytx DriveCam® safety program aboard should something go wrong.
“Sometimes traffic cuts into the convoy,” Whittle said. “The DriveCam® safety program is very useful in a situation like that. By triggering the camera with the manual switch, I can capture an unsafe event and protect myself from liability. When people see us driving for Wreaths Across America, it can distract other drivers who want to see what all the fuss is about. So, I feel an added layer of security knowing that the DriveCam safety program is here to protect me.”
Safety technology can help in inclement weather as well, Whittle said. For example, last year the convoy set out from Columbia Falls, Maine, as six inches of snow fell. “Even when I’m driving safely, I can rely on the DriveCam safety program to document what exactly is happening during a close call,” Whittle said.
Image: Hans Spiegel
Symbolism and Emotion Are Deeply Rooted in Wreaths Across America
While safety always is top of mind for Whittle whenever he’s driving, he revels in the one-of-a-kind camaraderie, excitement and emotion that the five-day Wreaths Across America journey evokes. In each state along the route, trucks stop at a memorial or school to lay a wreath of remembrance and connect with the community.Whittle loves seeing the excitement on kids’ faces. But the Wreaths Across America highlight for him is when Gold Star family members ride shotgun with him on the route.“It’s an honor, because I get to hear what it’s like to be the family member of someone who gave their life for our country,” Whittle said. “Those who died are heroes of course, but so are the Gold Star families. Their sacrifice is immeasurable.”
Whittle is gratified by Cargo Transporters’ support of veterans, as evidenced by the special veterans-themed wrap the company had custom-made for his truck. To support those who have served, the company displays photos of veterans on a dedicated wall at its headquarters.
“As a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, I am blessed, thankful and honored to have been chosen to drive this truck representing the military, knowing that I’ve served,” Whittle said.