Paying Respects: An Afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery

MilSpouseFest team member, Maria Melvin had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery at a historic moment. The following is her experience in her own words.

When military families receive PCS orders to the Washington D.C. area, they soon learn that it is a special and unique duty station, especially when compared to traditional military communities. Special, because it’s in the heart of our nation’s government. You never know who you’ll see out and about. There’s a festival or protest nearly every weekend. Unique, because of a wealth of opportunities. The entire region is full of history, and even if you live in nearby suburbia as I do, it’s easy to find yourself spending time in the District. D.C. is incredibly bucket list worthy. A few of our local military support organizations, such as USO-Metro and Blue Star Families, often have opportunities for service members and their families that can only be found in D.C. Local spouse groups will tell you their most popular event is touring the White House at Christmas (pre-COVID).

Yesterday I was fortunate to experience one of Washington D.C.’s special and unique opportunities.   

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. For the first time in nearly 100 years, and as part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration, the public was invited to walk on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza and lay flowers in front of the Tomb on November 9th and 10th. This was promoted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and required advanced registration although later I heard no one was turned away.   

My friend and fellow Navy milspouse had an extra ticket and invited me to go with her. It was a particularly beautiful fall day for D.C. making the fifty minute wait time pass quickly considering we started at the 100 minute mark sign. The line was solemn as it circled the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, with people taking photos of the rows of headstones or chatting quietly with those near them. We were given roses and carnations to place at the Tomb when paying our respects. Afterward we stayed to watch the Changing of the Guard, a duty performed by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment also known as “The Old Guard”.  The entire afternoon was a humbling experience and I am grateful that I could participate. 

In 1921 four Unknown U.S. service members killed during “The Great War” were exhumed from military cemeteries in France. One was selected to represent all Unknown Soldiers and brought to the U.S. for internment in a new special tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. On November 11, 1921, the Unknown was ceremoniously interred by President Warren G. Harding in the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.  The president placed the Medal Of Honor upon the casket while foreign dignitaries presented their countries’ highest awards. Eventually the Tomb was covered by the sarcophagus we see today, inscribed “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God”.

The opportunity to place flowers at the Tomb was particularly poignant for me because my maternal grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1912, joined the U.S. Army in 1917 and served as a medic during World War I participating in Aisne-Marne, Aisne and the Meuse-Argonne Offensives. He kept a diary in his native Italian documenting the casualties they moved from the battlefields each day. The numbers were staggering and to this day I can’t help but wonder how many of them remain “Known But To God”.

Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public daily from 8 am until 5 pm unless otherwise noted on their website.  There are guided and self-guided tours available. Everyone should visit there at least once in their lifetime. 

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