100 years ago today, Arlington National Cemetery inaugurated the first of what is a long-standing tradition: The dedication at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Initially, this was part of a worldwide trend to honor November 11th as Armistice Day, or the day that fighting for the Great War ended. After what most regarded as the worst conflict in human history, it was hoped that humanity would never again experience such a conflict. That we primarily refer the Great War as World War I should tell you that humanity did not achieve that goal.
The British and French took the lead in dedication ceremonies for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, holding the first of those dedications at Westminster Abby and the Arc De Triomphe, respectively, in 1920. Unfortunately, there were no shortage of suitable candidates for an “Unknown Soldier.” The scale of the devastation during World War I, with its unprecedented artillery barrages, chemical weapons, and fighting in some of the most inhospitable conditions, left many of those killed unidentifiable. Untold numbers of war graves throughout Europe dedicated to those lost in WWI have their tombstones labelled “Known Unto God.”
Thus it was in 1921, when the U.S. sought to create its own memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Of the thousands of unidentified dead for the U.S. side, the War Department eventually identified four candidates for internment in the tomb developed for Arlington. After selection in France, the selected soldier’s remains were transported back to America and made a ceremonial trek to Washington D.C. on November 9, 1921. After laying in state at the Capitol Rotunda for the 9th and 10th, the remains were transported to Arlington for their final internment at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on November 11th.
In the century since, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains one of the key landmarks for the Washington D.C. area. Starting in 1926, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by a hand-selected group of Army guards from the 3rd Infantry Regiment. They provide 24/7 coverage of the sacred monument. In 1958, the U.S. government interred remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II and Korea. They were joined by a Vietnam soldier in 1984. However, technological advancements allowed the future identification of the Vietnam soldier, and after the approval of the family and positive identification, Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie was exhumed and interred at a different location.
While the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was first dedicated on Veterans Day (renamed in 1954 from Armistice Day), Veterans Day came to represent a day to honor those who fought and survived America’s military engagements. Americans will honor both the living and the dead, much as they do with Memorial Day. There will be parades, speeches, ceremonies, and probably more than a few sales/discounts to be had. Yet the spirit of the day cannot, nor should not, be forgotten. Especially after what has been a trying year (for a multitude of reasons) for many a Veteran/Active Duty/Reserve/National Guard member and their respective families (who are just as all-in as the service member).
Since this is a football site, there are many tie-ins for military service and football. Many of the founding members of the NFL, from players to coaches, logged time in the Armed Forces in World War I before laying the foundation for what would become “America’s Game.” Even more players, coaches, and other associated personnel served in World War II and Korea. The military ethos and the experience of that service came to define much of the pro-football game in the decades that followed, from players to coaches. By the time of Vietnam, fewer NFL players served, but some would serve and return, from Roger Staubach fulfilling his Naval Academy service requirement at a supply depot to Rocky Bleier fulfilling his draft requirement, surviving serious war wounds to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers as they went on their dynastic run in the 1970s.
In the Post-Vietnam, All-Volunteer Era, there are even fewer players who served in the Armed Forces. There are some academy players who fulfill service requirements or work out arrangements to play and do reserve time. Current Ravens offensive lineman Andre Villanueva, upon graduation/commissioning from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, deployed to a combat zone (Afghanistan) and returned to a full-time career as NFL player.
While there are few actual players/coaches/executives with military service, the NFL has other ties to the military. Setting aside the publicity issues for the “Salute to Service” initiatives, the NFL generally does much to honor veterans and families. Also, for many military personnel, keeping tabs on NFL action is a major source of morale. This runs the gambit from troops deployed downrange in some remote Central Asian Forward Operating Base receiving radio/chat updates on NFL scores to the service member taking a break from the drudgery of the daily routine to discuss the latest team highlights (or, in the case of the 2021 Texans, how they enabled the other teams’ highlights). Sometimes the highlight of a brutal deployment day can be watching some NFL action as a much-needed break (yes, that includes the current iteration of the Texans).
Thus, as America observes another Veterans Day (hopefully you are in a position to take the day to observe), please take a few moments to reflect on the reason for the day. If you can observe the dedication at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TV or on-line streaming), take some time to do that, noting the centennial for this most solemn of American traditions. While many will use the “Thank You for Your Service” line, it is also a great opportunity to put that expression to real use:
As always, please enjoy this special day, doing in a way that is enjoyable, meaningful and safe. We want to see you back on this site in the same condition, if not better, after the holiday as before.