Blue Star Mothers Karen Hert and Skyla Govier lay a wreath while Lynette Ristau and MIchelle McMillen observe at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy Brenda Lee.

Pieces of the Past — Honoring the Fallen

May 29, 2024

One of the things I saw when I was 9 was the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. I only wish I had been 20 years older! Then I would have appreciated it far more.

Every day dedicated men and now women, pay tribute to Warriors who died serving our country but their identity was unknown. The members of the military who guard the tomb bring amazing pride with them to do their duty. I researched and wrote an article about this several years ago. For Memorial weekend I thought I would bring you a new one.

When thinking of the Tomb, most people don’t know that not only is there more than the one in Arlington but there are local connections to it. There are tombs for a Revolutionary War hero, several Civil War unknowns, and at least one for a Confederate soldier. Ironically the tomb’s home in Arlington is the former estate of Robert E. Lee.

When World War I ended, there was a movement to erect a tomb for the unknown. The French and British already had done so. It surprisingly was rejected here. After more than one attempt, the government agreed to the idea.
The Chief embalmer for the Army at the time was Charlie Keating from Corry. He along with a select group of veterans exhumed 4 bodies from different fields of battle. Without a prescribed system Charlie selected one to be honored.

The other local connection was Mark Bertolini from Warren. He was a guard at the tomb for 2 years. He told me that in order to join the old guard you need to be between 6-2 and 6-4. As tall as he is, he had to wear lifts in his shoes. Of course, the guard now accepts women. I don’t think there is a height requirement for them. The old guard is made up of personnel from all branches of the service. They rehearse for 4 hours a day. The type of steps they take, the number of steps. They even practice the way they keep people from getting too close to the tomb. According to Mark, they have to do it a lot!

The Old Guard keeps a 24-hour vigil. Under the tomb itself is the headquarters of the group. There is always a number of guards ready to respond to any situation. If you ever get to Arlington you will experience amazing respect. You can sense it. For a 9-year-old kid even I could feel it.

So far only one unknown has been positively identified. The Vietnam vet’s remains were exhumed and returned to his family. Arlington National Cemetery is an incredible place. It was taken from Robert E. Lee at the end of the Civil War. Decades later, the Lee family sued the government for the seizure and won. The settlement amounted to about $175,000.

For anyone who lost a family member in the service of our nation, I thank you.

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