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Published on: Monday, July 8, 2024 read more ...


A Tomb Guard’s Special Duty: Honoring the Unknowns During Memorial Day Weekend

By Kevin M. Hymel on 5/29/2024

With the slow, measured steps typical of a Tomb Guard, Spc. Jeffrey Potter carried four small American flags to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He wore a raincoat over his ceremonial dress blue uniform to ward off rain from the light showers that had soaked the Tomb plaza.

The Tomb Guards had just completed their noon changing of the guard on May 23, 2024, when the Guard walking the mat stepped into the green box at the north end of the plaza, leaving the area free for Potter to conduct the Flags In ceremony at the Tomb.

Soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) conduct Flags In every Thursday before Memorial Day, placing flags in front of headstones and columbarium columns throughout Arlington National Cemetery. Now it was time to conclude the mission by placing flags at the crypts of the World War I, World War II and Korean War Unknowns, as well as the empty crypt dedicated to missing service members from the Vietnam War.

Potter marched to the World War I crypt, withdrew one of the flags and, while facing forward, slowly unfurled it. Then he dropped to one knee and placed the flag in a small stand at the base of the crypt. At the other crypts, he repeated the process with the same precision.

Potter, who has been a Tomb Guard for more than two years, said he always wanted to perform a ceremony at the Tomb, but his schedule never allowed for it. “I really wanted to do something special like that,” he said, “and since my time here is coming to an end, I decided to do it.”

Staff Sgt. Justin Zimla, the assistant sergeant of the guard, approved Potter’s request to place the flags, noting the latter’s motivation for the special duty.

Potter practiced with Zimla for a half hour almost every day for a week. Having never seen a Flags In ceremony, he studied the standard operating procedures, which are similar to a Guard’s Last Walk, when a departing Guard leaves a rose at each crypt. “I’ve seen a handful of Last Walks,” Potter added, “so I decided to do it as if it were a Last Walk.”

The training paid off that Thursday when Potter walked onto the plaza and placed the flags. A crowd of about a hundred people watched in silent awe as they witnessed the annual tradition. While Potter placed the flags, Commander of the Guard, 1st Lt. Henry Newstrom, watched to ensure the ceremony went off without a hitch. “That was choreographed really well,” he said afterwards, “especially since it was something [Potter] had never done before.” Noting that Potter had trained hard for his task, Newstrom added, “He did a fantastic job.”

Placing flags at gravesites and the Tomb, however, was just the beginning of the Old Guard’s Memorial Day mission. Soldiers spent the remainder of the weekend making sure the flags remained clean and upright, and that they were not affected by rain and winds.

“Everything for us is a standard of perfection,” explained Newstrom, “so those flags will be cared for 24/7, as will the Unknowns.”