By: Kevin Hymel, ANC Contract Historian
Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb sentinels, members of 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, will play a key role in the upcoming Flowers of Remembrance Day on May 28, when the public can lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And the sentinels are ready. They already helped the public lay flowers for two days in early November 2021 for the Tomb Centennial.
“I attended lots of meetings,” said SFC Jason A. Hickman, the Sergeant of the Guard in charge of the men and women who protect the Tomb. “We did lots of brain storming with the Public Affairs Office and relief commanders, looking at how the guard changings would go.”
The sentinels had to change the way they changed the guard. Sentinels usually walk in front of all the Unknowns—from World War I, World War II, and Korea—but for the event they would only walk in front of the World War I Unknown. They would also have to prepare for larger-than-usual crowds and the disruptions they might bring.
The sentinels held a training day to rehearse changing the guard. “We changed the guard at the ‘the box,’” explained Hickman. The box is the phonebooth-like tent to the left of the Tomb. The rehearsal showed that changing the guard was similar enough the usual changing procedure and would not need lengthy training. They also moved the sentinels’ walking mat between the World War I Unknown and the others. Finally, they cleaned the plaza and made sure enough people would help with the hourly changing of the guard ceremony.
Sentinels enlisted various uniformed men and women at ANC to help with moving the stanchion chain for the guard changing. “We had operations officers and chaplains helping us,” said Hickman. “We had majors, captains, and sergeants first class.”
When people lined up to lay flowers on November 9, Hickman worried the line was getting too long and people would become angry. But, to his surprise, the opposite happened. “The line moved really, really quickly and everybody was really happy they had an opportunity to do it.” The sentinels walked the line and answered questions as well as gave briefs to crowds in the Memorial Amphitheater.
Hickman walked the line himself and engaged with individuals and different groups, like veterans’ organizations. “It was a great experience to interact, and everyone was extremely happy.” Hickman even laid flowers with his family. As for the crowd, there was no unruliness. “It was a good day.”
When it was all over, Hickman came away impressed. “Over 40,000 people came and laid flowers, so it was a great way to commemorate the hundredth year of the Tomb,” he explained, adding that he would like to see that kind of interaction return to the cemetery.
Hickman sees how opening the Tomb to the public has redefined its purpose. “Just like you can walk up to a headstone of somebody you don’t know and leave a stone,” he explained, “now we’re giving people—unless they’re eighty-years old—an opportunity they haven’t had in their life.” He hopes that people who witness a wreath laying ceremonies at the Tomb will think, “’That’s cool, I’d love the opportunity to pay my respect’ and now they get to do that through flowers.” And people will be able to do it again when Arlington National Cemetery will allow people to lay flowers at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as part of Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 28, 2022 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.