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A visitor salutes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, after laying a flower at its base. For the first time in recent history, Arlington National Cemetery allowed members of the public to approach the tomb. The event was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the site. 
A visitor salutes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, after laying a flower at its base. For the first time in recent history, Arlington National Cemetery allowed members of the public to approach the tomb. The event was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the site.  (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY — Thousands of people with flowers in hand approached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, walking closer to the tomb than members of the public have been able to at any point in recent history.

“It’s wonderful to see everybody out here,” said Pam Morris, 71. “I think there are not enough remembrances given on a regular basis to people who offered up their lives for service of the country.”

Visitors and their dog approach the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Thousands of people placed flowers at the tomb during a two-day ceremony. 
Visitors and their dog approach the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Thousands of people placed flowers at the tomb during a two-day ceremony.  (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
Visitors stack flowers in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, during a ceremony to commemorate the tomb’s 100th anniversary.
Visitors stack flowers in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, during a ceremony to commemorate the tomb’s 100th anniversary. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Morris traveled from Yardley, Pa., to lay a flower at the tomb. Her parents and grandparents were all interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Her grandfather, a World War I veteran, and her father, a World War II veteran, were both buried with full military honors.

Many visitors placed their flowers at the base of tomb. While most continued across the plaza, some people hesitated long enough to salute or give the sign of the cross. Within an hour, the flowers were stacked so deep that a half-dozen soldiers had to gather them by the armful and move them closer to the tomb to make room for more.

The crowds at Arlington on Tuesday and Wednesday were there to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tomb. On Nov. 11, 1921, the unidentified remains of a World War I soldier were entombed at Arlington, creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A line of people wait to place flowers at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. For the first time in recent history, Arlington National Cemetery allowed members of the public to approach the tomb. The event was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the site.
A line of people wait to place flowers at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. For the first time in recent history, Arlington National Cemetery allowed members of the public to approach the tomb. The event was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the site. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

The tomb now includes the remains of soldiers from World War II and the Korean War, and it’s become a symbol of American service and sacrifice.

The flower-laying ceremony — and the chance to approach the tomb — was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the people who participated, said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries.

The crowd on Wednesday included veterans, active-duty service members, large groups of school children, Boy Scouts, toddlers, seniors, tourists and people taking a break from their workday to participate.

As a special gesture, Morris said she wore her father’s “miraculous medal,” a necklace worn with the belief that it will provide protection. Her father, a bomber pilot, wore it throughout his military service.

"He carried it on all of his missions — 69 of them, including D-Day," she said.

More than 13,000 people registered to attend both days of the flower-laying ceremony, but the true number of visitors is expected to be much higher, said Amber Vincent, a public affairs specialist with Arlington. The cemetery didn’t turn away anyone who wanted to participate.

A guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marches at the back of the tomb on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. While they typically guard the front of the tomb, the sentinels were moved to the back during a two-day ceremony that allowed members of the public to place flowers at the tomb’s base.
A guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marches at the back of the tomb on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. While they typically guard the front of the tomb, the sentinels were moved to the back during a two-day ceremony that allowed members of the public to place flowers at the tomb’s base. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
A soldier arranges flowers at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, during a ceremony to commemorate the tomb’s 100th anniversary. After Veterans Day, the flowers will be distributed to graves throughout Arlington National Cemetery.
A soldier arranges flowers at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, during a ceremony to commemorate the tomb’s 100th anniversary. After Veterans Day, the flowers will be distributed to graves throughout Arlington National Cemetery. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
A visitor drops white roses onto a heap of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. For two days, Arlington National Cemetery allowed visitors to approach the tomb and place flowers.
A visitor drops white roses onto a heap of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. For two days, Arlington National Cemetery allowed visitors to approach the tomb and place flowers. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)
A soldier gathers flowers placed at the base of the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. A ceremony was held Tuesday and Wednesday to allow members of the public to approach the tomb and place flowers for the first time in recent history.
A soldier gathers flowers placed at the base of the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. A ceremony was held Tuesday and Wednesday to allow members of the public to approach the tomb and place flowers for the first time in recent history. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Though many people waited in line Wednesday and dozens more watched from around the tomb, the atmosphere was quiet and reflective.

“It’s always so solemn,” said Deborah Coryer, 60, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who watched visitors lay flowers.

Brian Silbernagel, 54, who was visiting from Oregon, said he watches the broadcast of the Veterans Day events at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every year.

“I’ve always wanted to come and see it,” he said. “It was great. I just have a great respect for the military.”

Arlington National Cemetery will continue the centennial commemoration on Thursday with a procession that is intended to evoke elements of the unidentified soldier’s funeral procession in 1921. There will be a flyover at 9 a.m., the same time the procession begins.

Following the events on Veterans Day, the flowers placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will be distributed among headstones throughout the cemetery.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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