Public may visit US Unknown Soldier tomb for 1st time in 73 years

By Susana Samhan

Washington, Nov 9 (EFE).- On Tuesday, people dressed in their Sunday best to come to the military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, to visit – for the first time in 73 years – the tomb containing the remains of a US soldier who has never been identified but who has played a fundamental role in building US identity.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery has been in existence for 100 years and, to commemorate that fact, the public is being allowed to approach it on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since 1948, when further access by visitors was prohibited because of the lack of respect or decorum displayed by some members of the public at the sacred site.

A group of people waited patiently in line on Tuesday to be allowed to approach the white marble tomb, where an unidentified US soldier killed in World War I rests. Men and women of all ages, along with a number of children, waited their turns in silence, as if they were in church.

Among them was a man dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie who, after depositing flowers at the site, straightened his back, came to attention and gave a military salute before the tomb.

The main sarcophagus stands in the open air and before it are three stone slabs beneath which rest the remains of two other unknown soldiers, one from World War II and the other from the Korean War. An unidentified soldier from the Vietnam War rested beneath the third slab until 1998, when his remains were finally identified and moved to another burial site.

The mausoleum attracted a huge crowd on Tuesday wanting to pay tribute to all US soldiers, identified or not, who have given their lives in wars in which the US has fought.

The Public Relations specialist for the Arlington cemetery, Amber Vincent, told EFE that the tomb is special because it’s the “heart” of the cemetery.

She said that people can come and pay tribute to all the soldiers who have served in the US military, adding that it’s something that provides a reference point for many people who don’t know a single member of the military but who want to show their respect for them.

The cemetery holds the remains of some 400,000 soldiers and some of their family members, of whom about 5,000 sets of remains belong to unidentified soldiers.

The site dates from the time of the US Civil War (1861-1865), but it did not begin to be considered a “sacred or special site” by the public until the interment of an unknown soldier from World War I.

University of Connecticut history professor Micki McElya, author of the book titled “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery,” told EFE that the tomb “forged a link between all Americans and the cemetery.”

The tomb became a symbol of patriotism and national honor at the same time it recognized the great sacrifices that some have made for the country, she said.

In his 1921 elegy at the tomb, President Warren Harding, during whose 1921-1923 mandate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created, described Arlington as “the heart of a nation sorrowing for its noble dead,” a statement, McElya said, that served to unite the large and varied US population in honoring the fallen troops.

Despite the fact that they are not soldiers, government officials Matthew Fox and his husband Bradley, came to Arlington on Tuesday to deposit flowers at the Tomb.

“Many of us are not in the Armed Forces,” said Fox, but there are those who are fighting for freedom for Americans and we must come, pay them respect and show the troops that we’re concerned for them and what they’re doing because it’s a great sacrifice.

Other people came to Arlington for more personal reasons, like Frank, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who told EFE that he wanted to honor his son, a soldier who committed suicide.

For this veteran, who wore a black beret that read “Desert Storm” – the US offensive launched during the 1991 Gulf War – the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a good way to pay tribute to the fallen.

He said that the US had left the bodies of many soldiers in foreign lands over the course of its history and we don’t know who they are, but coming to the tomb is a good way to pay tribute to them and to recall those who are still serving and to resolve not to leave anyone behind.

In fact, that was one of the reasons that it was decided to bury an unknown soldier from World War I at Arlington.

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