Legislators want to honor Tomb of Unknown Soldier

Germany’s minister of defense, Ursula von der Leyen, lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on June 20, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army)

The centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will be saluted with a commemorative coin from the U.S. Mint, if U.S. Rep. Don Beyer can convince colleagues of the effort’s appropriateness.

Beyer (D-8th) has joined U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in sponsoring legislation to recognize the 100th anniversary of the iconic Arlington National Cemetery monument.

Such a coin would “help Americans learn more about the sacrifices of those brave souls interred in Arlington and elsewhere,” Beyer said in a statement.

More than 4 million people pass through the gates of Arlington National Cemetery each year, and most find their way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay homage to those interred, Cotton said.

“This commemorative coin will be a fitting tribute to those heroes and to the sentinels who have guarded our Tomb,” he said.

Proceeds from the sale of commemorative coins would benefit the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and would have no net cost to the federal government, sponsors said.

President Warren G. Harding led the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) in 1921. The tomb initially held the remains of a soldier from World War I; in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower presided over a ceremony adding remains of service members who served in World War II and the Korean War to the monument.

(As a result of the additional interments, the monument also has become known as the “Tomb of the Unknowns,” but the Defense Department favors the original name.)

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over a similar ceremony interring the remains of a Vietnam War-era service member, but using DNA testing, military officials in 1998 were able to identify him as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, whose aircraft had been shot down in 1972. Blassie’s remains were removed for separate burial, and the Vietnam crypt has remained vacant since.

The tomb is guarded around the clock by Tomb Guard Sentinels, members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Old Guard) from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. But this has not always been the case; for the first four years of the Tomb’s existence, it was unguarded. A civilian guard was posted there in November 1925 to shoo away picnickers using the marble plaza; a military guard followed in 1926, and round-the-clock guards have been on duty since July 1937.

A decade ago, the deteriorated physical condition of the monument led to a debate over whether it should be repaired or replaced. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opted to fill in cracked marble, an effort that, after a few false starts, was deemed to have been a success.

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