ARLINGTON, Va. - As a new day dawns and the nation’s Capitol awakens, one landmark nearby never sleeps: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment watch over this sacred spot around the clock.
“That first light every morning, and how the sunlight strikes the tomb. And what happens there, it is mystical. It is mystical,” said former Tomb Guard Richard Azzaro. “You come to understand the trust that is been placed in your hand, you will never fail that.”
Azzaro belongs to a small fraternity of soldiers.
“I was there from March of 1963 to April of 1965,” Azzaro said. “This is a process that is calculated to have zero failure. The function we have been chosen to do and the trust placed in our hands, we cannot fail.”
At 18 years of age, Azzaro was selected to join the Old Guard. The veteran is one of only 680 sentinels who have guarded the tomb every minute of every day since 1937.
Azzaro said sentinels shoulder the responsibility of a nation by protecting the legacy of the fallen.
“Some of the best walks happen at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. That is when you’re there. And you’re thinking about them and you say ‘This one is for you’,” he said. “You get a sense of life. The rhythm of life, death. What they gave up.”
The man from Maryland said nothing before or since compares to his two years serving as a Tomb Guard.
“The mission is going to turn on you and embrace you. At that moment you will be changed forever. It is for life,” described Azzaro.
In November of 1921, Washington, D.C. opened its arms to welcome home the nation’s unknown.
Arlington historian Tim Frank said the remains of a single U.S. soldier killed in France during WWI would represent all service members lost to history.
“It means they gave their lives and their identity for a cause greater than themselves,” said Frank.
Mourners watch the procession wind from the U.S Capitol through the city.
“It was a major event,” Frank explained. “Over 90,000 people filed through to pay their respects.”
On the day of the burial, everyday Americans, President Harding and other dignitaries including Crow Chief Plenty Coups witness the burial.
“There are multiple Native American chiefs at the funeral. Chief Plenty Coups placed his war bonnet and coups sticks on the Tomb,” said Frank.
From the four corners of the globe to the heartland of America, the monument draws roughly four million visitors a year to witness the changing of the guard.
“I admire how disciplined each soldier was with their marching. It was very, very nice,” said 14-year-old Arya Goel.
On one particular day, eighth-graders from Carmel, Indiana, are selected for a hands-on history lesson.
“Today I was part of the wreath-laying ceremony. And it was such a great honor,” said 13-year-old Divya Ariyur.
“This moment will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” said teacher Chad Carr. “I don’t think the kids can get a more meaningful experience than being here at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “
Veterans Day marks the 100th anniversary of this hallowed shrine. History will echo across the decades. A joint military procession will mirror the events of 1921.
Dr. Gerald Lowe, Arlington’s Chief of Operations, and his staff have been planning the centennial commemoration for two years.
“It is an incredibly important place. It is one that helps me remember why we’re here and what we do,” said Lowe. “That is the idea to provide that one place for a nation to remember. A nation to mourn. A nation to honor.”
Azzaro will always remember this defining moment in his life.
“When I left, I was still 20, but my life has always been looking out through the eyes of a tomb guard,” said Azzaro.
The man intimately familiar with Arlington will return for the ceremony.
“We’ve got some good people out there. The mission is in good hands,” said Azzaro.
The 77-year-old will pay homage to the unknowns he safeguarded through rain, sleet and snow. The aging soldier shares a bond with the fallen he says can never be broken.
“It is definitely not about the honor guard. Definitely not,” said Azzaro. “It has been put in our hands. That trust. America trusts us to make sure the sacred duty is fulfilled completely, fully forever.”
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery is allowing members of the public to lay flowers at the Tomb on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10.
If you would like to be a part of this rare occasion you can register on the cemetery’s website.
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