A Simple, Powerful Message

Published: April 5, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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Here Rests, In Honored Glory, An American Soldier, Known But To God

– inscription on the tomb of the unknown soldiers, Arlington National Cemetery

tomb of the unknowns

Palm Desert, California eighth-grader John Diaz, along with fifty other students, will be visiting Washington D.C. in June for their first time. Two students will be given the rare opportunity to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The students were asked to submit an essay, no more than 500 words in length, about the history of Arlington, and why they felt they would be the best candidate to represent their school, Palm Desert Charter Middle School.

With his grandparents, John researched the background of Arlington, and spoke to Richard Ryder, his former football coach who was a pilot in the Korean War and has relatives buried there. The essays were judged by the principal and teachers with the names masked. John’s essay was chosen as the one boy along with a girl to lay the wreath.

What makes John’s essay particularly powerful is its straightforward language and sincerity. It is a reminder to all of us – adults and eighth graders alike – why we should never forget the ultimate sacrifice made by the men and women who have served this country.

“One afternoon in May 1861, a Union Army officer rushed into the Arlington mansion and told the wife of Robert E. Lee that she must pack up all of her valuables immediately and send them off in the morning. At the time, Robert E. Lee was away mobilizing his troops to prepare for the bloody Civil war. Mary Lee was devastated by the thought of abandoning her beloved Arlington, an 11,000 acre estate that she had inherited from her father, a relative of George Washington. Union troops easily took Arlington, and after the war, the Lee family and the Federal government fought over the property.

“In 1882, it was transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most hallowed ground. Today it is the most sacred cemetery and the final resting place for thousands of our greatest heroes. It includes more than 300,000 veterans from every American conflict dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“I believe I would be an excellent candidate to lay the wreath and represent Palm Desert Charter Middle School because American history is by far my favorite topic to study in school. I have immense respect for the sacrifices that were made by those who fought for our freedom, and I am especially touched by the tomb of the unknown soldiers, whose families never received closure on their loved ones.

“Being chosen to lay the wreath would be a great honor, and something I would never forget. In preparing to write this essay, I watched Taking Chance, a movie about a soldier escorting another soldier home after he was killed. This movie showed the respect that everyday citizens have for soldiers and their sacrifices, and helped me to understand the impact that the death of a soldier has on their family. My time at Palm Desert Charter Middle School has been very special to me and I would be greatly honored to be able to represent my school.”


  1. Awesome job John.

    If memory serves me correctly, during Hurricane Sandy the Guards were asked if they wanted to stand down during the storm. To a one, they all chose to march and not miss their shift.

    Well done John. Your salute to these honorable men is appreciated.

  2. Beautifully written and well-understood.

    The Tomb Guards belong to the 3rd US Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” and becoming a Tomb Guard is a distinct honor. This 24-hour watch was begun back in 1937 to protect the memorial, and the soldiers then lived under the memorial, but now can live off base. Recently, women have been encouraged to apply.

    There are many stories, some true, about the guards. No, they don’t take a vow not to drink or smoke; they do not serve forever but typically 18 months; shifts vary depending on season, time of day and range from 30 minutes to 2 hours after dark when the cemetery is closed. Their white gloves are moistened to better grip the wooden stock of their Garand rifle. The march is 21 steps….the same number as the highest military honor, the 21 gun salute. And pretty much no weather is too difficult, and only Very rarely is no one there except if it is deemed too dangerous to march.

    Nice job young man!

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