The Ripon Forum

Volume 53, No. 5

Veterans Day 2019

Service, Sacrifice, and a Sacred Duty

By on November 3, 2019


Veterans Day is our national holiday to honor the sacrifice of our veterans and to celebrate their bravery and skill.  Though my grandfather served in World War II and my father served in the Vietnam War, the holiday wasn’t intensely personal in our family.  Both men were too reserved and humble for that.  We honored and celebrated all those who served in our family and community.

These days, I usually continue that tradition on Veterans Day at services to honor Arkansas’s veterans.  But when I’m in the nation’s capital — as I was during my tour at Arlington National Cemetery with The Old Guard — I try to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  As I write in Sacred Duty, the Tomb originally honored an unknown soldier from World War I, but has since become our national place of remembrance and honor.

The story of the Tomb begins on the battlefields of Europe as the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.  The American Expeditionary Forces had proved decisive in World War I. But despite its late entry, the AEF still lost more than 116,000 troops.  Thus, for the first time the nation faced the question of how to handle large numbers of remains in an overseas war.

When I’m in the nation’s capital — as I was during my tour at Arlington National Cemetery with The Old Guard — I try to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Senior Army leaders generally preferred not to disturb the dead, but war mothers and war widows prevailed in Congress.  Most Gold Star Families repatriated their loved ones, though nearly 31,000 Americans remained in Europe in eight newly established cemeteries, where they still rest today under the care of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

But the question occurred of what to do with approximately 2,000 unidentified remains.  Some advocated for a memorial to an unknown soldier who would represent all the unknown fallen.  On Armistice Day 1920, as it was then known, France and Great Britain buried an unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey in elaborate funerals before vast crowds.  The pageantry and emotion of the day galvanized American public opinion.  General John Pershing, who had led the AEF, testified to Congress in favor of a memorial.  Congress quickly passed legislation to honor an unknown at Arlington and President Woodrow Wilson signed it on his final day in office.

The funeral would occur on Armistice Day 1921, giving the Army eight months to select the remains of an unknown soldier.  They went to great lengths to ensure anonymity, exhuming four unknowns from four cemeteries, destroying all related records, and even rearranging the caskets in secret shortly before the selection.  Sergeant Edward Younger, who had served in the AEF’s biggest campaigns, selected America’s Unknown Soldier on October 24.  The Unknown then crossed France to great fanfare before departing for home the next day aboard the U.S.S. Olympia, Admiral George Dewey’s flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay.

Captain Tom Cotton in November 2007 at Arlington Cemetery, where he served as a member of the Old Guard, who conducts funerals at the Cemetery and guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Meanwhile, the Military District of Washington prepared a welcome befitting a General of the Armies for the Unknown’s arrival on November 9.  A large ceremonial procession escorted him from the Washington Navy Yard to the Capitol Rotunda, where he laid in state on the Lincoln Catafalque and received visits from President and Mrs. Warren Harding and senior officials from all three branches of governments.  When the Capitol’s east doors opened the next morning, thousands of soldiers, veterans, and fellow citizens were gathered to pay their final respects — including Gold Star Families of missing or unidentified soldiers, perhaps wondering if it was their son or husband or dad resting in that casket.  By midnight, nearly 100,000 persons passed through the Rotunda to honor the Unknown.

The Tomb is a special place on Veterans Day, but also a place where every day is Veterans Day.

On the morning of Armistice Day, the Unknown was honored with a funeral procession from the Capitol to Arlington.  Alongside the military escort, President Harding and General Pershing led hundreds of dignitaries, including Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, governors, legislators, Medal of Honor recipients, and other soldiers and veterans.  Inside the Amphitheater, President Harding honored the Unknown with the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.  The Unknown was then lowered into the Tomb, a bugler sounded Taps, and the artillery fired a final 21-gun salute.  The Unknown now rested in his eternal home, the high ground of Arlington.

Sadly, this Unknown was later joined by Unknown Soldiers from World War II and the Korean War (and temporarily from a Vietnam Unknown, whose identity was later uncovered after exhumation).  But as the years passed, the Tomb became not only a place to remember these three Unknowns and the fallen unknown comrades from the wars in which they all served, but also a place to honor all those who have served in our nation’s wars, from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Tomb is a special place on Veterans Day, but also a place where every day is Veterans Day.  Our nation has committed to guard the Tomb continuously for 82 years and counting as a way to show our respect and appreciation for all those who served.  The Tomb Sentinels who stand guard embody the spirit of Veterans Day, as do the millions of Americans who make the pilgrimage to the Tomb each year.

Tom Cotton is a United States Senator for Arkansas.  This essay is adapted from his best-selling book Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.

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