Since the American Revolution there have been over 666,000 Americans killed in combat during the many wars and conflicts in our relatively short history. This doesn’t count the 670,000+ non-combat deaths or the over 1.5 million wounded. These statistics are horrifying when you take into account more than just the numbers.
These figures represent people, people that died. People that died in the pursuit of freedom, defending our nation against aggressors that threatened our way of life. Think about the decision to invade Europe on the beaches of Normandy during Hitler’s occupation. The President had to knowingly send American boys to their death on June 6, 1944, in the hopes that some would somehow survive to push back Hitler and his army. I read somewhere that he and Churchill estimated that over half would be killed during the initial assaults. I cannot imagine having to make that decision myself, not only because of the obvious, a decision resulting in the death of even one soldier, but the grief their families would suffer. Envision getting that knock on the door in the middle of the night. No thank you. How much worse it must be for families that never had their fallen loved ones returned to them? That kind of pain is almost unimaginable.
In the spirit of honoring these soldiers and their families, Congress authorized the burial of an unknown American WW1 soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on a prime spot by the Amphitheater in 1921, and the Tomb was erected at the head of the grave and completed with ceremony in 1932. Since then there were unknowns from subsequent wars buried at the Tomb and even an unknown serviceman from the Vietnam War was buried but then disinterred and moved per request of his family. (Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie was identified after his burial at the Tomb through DNA testing).
These thoughts were racing through my mind as I stood waiting to participate in the laying of a wreath ceremony at the Tomb during the Dodge Company Wreaths Across America tour last December. I thought about memorialization of the dead and how much comfort this monument must be to the families that never had the opportunity to physically say goodbye to their fallen soldier. I was told I would be moved to tears. It was true. I was just about to that point when a group of young sailors filed in front of the four of us waiting for the ceremony to begin. It was bitter cold and each of the sailors was directly in front of each other taking his turn rendering honors to the unknown soldiers in the tomb. Each and every boy had a leaky runny nose and couldn’t wipe them off without being disrespectful. As they filed through, the sight tickled me and kept my tears in check and I think all four of us held back a chuckle.
The Tomb is guarded at all times by an elite team of tomb sentinels from the 3rd Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". To become a full-fledged Tomb Guard is one of the most sought after guard positions in the armed forces. The only qualification badge that is awarded less frequently is the Astronaut Badge. We were also told that the changing of the guard would be extra special as a female Tomb Guard was serving as relief commander, leading the ceremony. She was amazing. There is a height and weight requirement for the Sentinels (5’10” minimum, 6’ 2” max with no larger than a 30” waist) and she was much shorter than the on-duty guard. But her smaller frame concealed a giant presence with a voice to match, and while she issued the orders to change the guards she also put a little fear into my gut knowing she was the one that was going to lead the four of us during the wreath laying ceremony as well. Once the changing of the guard was over she marched up the steps in crisp military style (translate: intimidating as heck) to brief us for our part of the ceremony and I thought, great, don’t mess this up or she will shoot you! She finally got to the top of the steps where we were waiting and without missing a beat, immediately relaxed and said, “Hi! How are ya’ll doing?” in a casual friendly voice. Whew! She really knew how to ease our nervousness and put things back on track for a respectful, honorable, unforgettably humbling experience honoring the scores of our unknown war dead.
If you ever have a chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery, you will undoubtedly visit the Tomb of the Unknowns. While there paying homage to the many fallen soldiers that ever made it home or made it home unidentified, please take a moment to also remember the many families and loved ones who never had a chance to physically say goodbye. Although nothing could ever make up for a sacrifice made only worse by the fact that there were so many killed in action whose identity could not be distinguished. I am confident that this monument brings a small measure of comfort for those families.