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Part of Tomb of the Unknown Soldier opens to public for first time in 100 years

The hallowed area in Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to America’s unidentified war dead is open to the public Wednesday.
People walk to place flowers during a centennial commemoration event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 9, 2021, in Arlington, Va.
People walk to place flowers at a centennial commemoration at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday.Alex Brandon / Pool via Getty Images

A sacred part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier usually visited only by presidents and foreign dignitaries is open to the public this week in honor of the 100th anniversary of the memorial dedicated to America’s unidentified war casualties.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is usually reserved for the sentinels who stand guard, as well as presidents and other dignitaries presenting wreaths or flowers.

Ahead of Veterans Day on Thursday, members of the public were able to step forward on the plaza Tuesday to pay their respects by placing flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb will be open again from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time Wednesday. Tickets are sold out, but walk-ups will be allowed.

The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1921, after the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War I were exhumed from a military cemetery in France, flown to the U.S. and buried in a ceremony officiated by President Warren G. Harding.

Remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were interred at the tomb in the 1950s. The remains of a Vietnam War veteran were buried there in 1984, but they were exhumed in 1998 and buried at a military cemetery in Missouri at the request of the soldier’s family after he was identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, according to the Arlington National Cemetery website.

Army Sgt. Michael Hardegree died while serving in Iraq in 2007. His mother, Cindy Chip, whose son, is among the more than 12,000 people who signed up to lay flowers at the tomb.

“We don’t know that soldier’s name,” she told Craig Melvin on NBC’s “TODAY” show. “We don’t know anything about him except that he was an American soldier and he gave his life for his country. And we will never forget him.

“And every mother in her heart, that is what we want to say. Just don’t forget them. Just don’t forget that he lived. And that’s what that tomb says to me. This country will never forget it.”

Chip’s son is buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. She is a frequent visitor who first experienced the solemnity of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when she was 15.

“We came up here and we watched the change of the guard at the tomb,” she said. “I was so profoundly moved by that, and I never forgot it.”

Visiting her son’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become a regular part of her life.

“It’s service for me,” she said. “I’ve taken Mike’s service and I’ve made it my service. Coming to the tomb, coming to this place, it helps me because I’m doing that service.”

The unknown soldiers are also never alone, as a senior member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard, has kept watch ever since it was designated as the Army’s ceremonial unit in 1948.

Sgt. Trevor Drahem, a senior member of the unit, is responsible for rigorously inspecting the uniform of the soldier coming on to patrol.

The guard observes a strict process that includes facing east and north for 21 seconds each and taking 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb in honor of the 21-gun salute, the highest symbolic military honor.

“As guards, we’re out there every day. We see a lot. We feel a lot. We get to experience a lot,” Drahem said. “And I hope that the public can take away a little bit of what we feel being able to be so close to the unknowns.”