ANC Executive Director Gives Impromptu Tour to South Korean President

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 4/27/2023

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol changed his mind. After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) on April 25, 2023, he was supposed to depart the cemetery. But as he passed through the Memorial Amphitheater, he stopped to look at the plaque that his country gave to the United States, on exhibit in the Amphitheater’s Display Room (which features numerous plaques given by foreign leaders who have visited ANC). He then began to peruse the exhibit on the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

Ms. Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director, Office of Army Cemeteries and Army National Military Cemeteries, stepped in. She discussed the history of the Unknowns from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and then explained how DNA testing eventually identified the Vietnam War Unknown as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose remains (at the request of his family) were disinterred and reburied at a national cemetery in his hometown.  “The president was very moved by that,” said Durham-Aguilera, noting that his foreign minister stated that many Koreans also fought in the Vietnam War.

Durham-Aguilera emphasized that the Unknowns “gave their lives, and they gave their identities” in service to the nation. She also explained the efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to identify unknown American service members. “Of those who have been identified from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, more than 50 percent of their families bring them here to Arlington for their final rest,” she stated. 

Durham-Aguilera elaborated on funerals for those identified. “For the family members, it doesn’t even matter if they didn’t know their ancestor,” she said. A funeral at ANC “provides them peace, comfort and closure, and it’s a very emotional process” she said. 

President Yoon asked questions about the other displays, including the contents of the time capsule that had been placed in the cornerstone of Memorial Amphitheater during its construction in 1915; the first American Unknown Soldier; and Crow (Apsáalooke) chief Plenty Coups, who attended the World War I Unknown’s funeral as a representative of American Indians. For Durham-Aguilera, it was easy to explain how she could cover so many historical topics: “I spend enough time with our historians that they have trained me well.”