Retired and active duty members of the military, along with their families and guests, gathered at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday morning for the centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Special programs to commemorate the event were scheduled leading up to Veterans Day. This included — for the first time in nearly 100 years — an opportunity for the public to walk onto the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza and to place flowers next to the memorial site.

“The public doesn’t normally get to be on the plaza of the Tomb, even for soldiers in The Old Guard,” said retired Col. Joe Buche, now the Executive Director of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Foundation. “It’s fairly uncommon if you are not a sentinel to get to be on the plaza. I’ve talked to several people today where it’s quite a moving experience for them.”

Col. Buche spent a part of his 30-plus years in the Army as commanding officer for the “The Old Guard,” or 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — the unit that protects the Tomb.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marks the final resting place of fallen unknown service members within Arlington National Cemetery, outside of Washington, D.C. Initially erected in 1921 following the first World War, it honors the ultimate sacrifice of our nation’s armed forces. Since 1937, the Tomb has been protected 24/7 — rain or shine. The Old Guard became the Tomb’s constant protector beginning in 1948.

Thousands of visitors were seen on the sunny Wednesday morning paying their respects on the plaza. Many brought their own flowers while others picked up pink carnations and roses from volunteers like Jo Ann Maitland.

“Our children’s lives are remembered a lot with flowers so we love nothing more than to be able to give that to the public and to honor veterans today,” Maitland said.

Maitland is the president of American Gold Star Mothers, a nonprofit group for American mothers who have lost a child in service of the U.S. armed forces.

“As a military spouse, it’s just an honor to pay homage to ones that have gone before us and our brothers and sisters that are still fighting for our freedoms,” said Joanna Mason, who also volunteered to hand out flowers.

The day was a powerful, and emotional experience for members of the military who attended the centennial event — some of whom previously guarded the Tomb.

“Arlington is the heartbeat of America,” said retired Cmdr. Richard A. Azzaro, a former Tomb Guard from 1963 until 1965, who co-founded the Society of the Honor Guard, a nonprofit with members who are current and former Tomb Sentinels.

Azzaro reflected on the difficulties every Tomb Guard faces, and the everlasting connection Guards have to the memorial.

“We are here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We see the seasons, we feel the seasons, we hear the seasons,” he said. “It becomes almost a rhythm of life that we become a part of.”

Aside from the public flower ceremony and the iconic changing of the guard, there were programs for visitors to learn about the history and significance of the Tomb and the hallowed grounds of the cemetery.

“Each of the headstones here, there are hundreds of thousands of them, there’s a story behind each one of them,” Buche shared, a reminder of how meaningful the national cemetery is to military families year round.

The commemoration continues on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery. A joint full honors procession meant to replicate the initial 1921 funeral procession will take place in concurrence with a joint service flyover.

“This is where America fulfills its sacred duty to never forget, and that’s what this is all about,” Azzaro said.

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