University Honors Veterans at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

GW leaders participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Wreath Laying Ceremony
George Washington President Steven Knapp, Board of Trustees member Mark Shenkman, student veteran Verónica María Hoyer and Vice Admiral (retired) Melvin G. Williams lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Monday morning.
November 06, 2013

By Lauren Ingeno

One week before Veterans Day, George Washington President Steven Knapp honored Americans who have fought and died in war by participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Dr. Knapp was joined by student veteran Verónica María Hoyer, George Washington University Board of Trustees member Mark Shenkman, M.B.A. ’67, and Vice Admiral (retired) Melvin G. Williams, associate provost for military and veterans affairs.

“We have more than 1,000 student veterans and dependents who are using GI Bill benefits at the university. And many others have friends and family who have died on behalf of our country,” Dr. Knapp said. “I think this ceremony is very meaningful for a large portion of our student community.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. The stone sarcophagus is above the grave of a World War I unknown soldier, and west of it are crypts of unknown soldiers from World War II and Korea. The soldier that had been buried in the Vietnam War grave was identified in 1998, and that crypt now remains vacant.

As the cemetery bells chimed at 11 a.m., members of the GW wreath-laying party and more than 75 others from the university, including  senior administration, deans, students and NROTC members, silently witnessed the Changing of the Guards, which occurs every hour in front of the tomb.

Following the elaborate ritual, Dr. Knapp, Ms. Hoyer, Mr. Shenkman and Adm. Williams were led down the stairs by a sentinel as another guard approached the group with a wreath. The four processed forward and placed the wreath at the tomb, followed by a rendition of “Taps.”

 

“It was a great honor for me to participate in this ceremony, and I was very humbled,” said Mr. Shenkman, who served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Computer Systems Command from 1967 to 1969. “Especially when they played ‘Taps’—it just sends a chill through your entire body,” he said.

 

Having just returned in May from her second tour in Afghanistan, Ms. Hoyer felt particularly moved by the ceremony.

 

Ms. Hoyer, a freshman in the Elliott School of International Affairs, served two tours in Afghanistan on board the MC-12W Project Liberty as ad hoc Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance support for Operation Enduring Freedom.

 

“I may not have had the pressure of being shot at directly, but I had the pressure of knowing that my speed, my abilities, my knowledge and my attention to detail affected someone else’s life,” Ms. Hoyer said. “And we have lost heroes on my watch.”

 

This past April, as Ms. Hoyer’s second tour in Afghanistan was coming to a close, her good friend was killed during a plane crash. As she laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Ms. Hoyer thought of her friend and others she knew who lost their lives during operations, she said.

 

“This is the greatest military honor I have ever been a part of,” she said.

 

For Adm. Williams, the ceremony was a reminder of “the institutional commitment of GW” to military personnel, veterans and their families.

 

GW has put a strong focus on veteran initiatives, aiming to not only help former service members fund their education, but also aiding them in the often difficult transition to civilian life.

 

The GW Veterans Accelerate Learning Opportunities and Rewards program (GW VALOR), launched this year, provides increased academic and career support for veteran and military students and their dependents through online degree programs, career advisers and counseling services.

 

In May, the university decided to double its contributions to the Yellow Ribbon Program—a provision of the post-9/11 GI Bill—making almost all graduate degree programs free of cost for GW student veterans, in addition to the already tuition-free undergrduate programs. 

 

After the wreath-laying ceremony, attendees learned of GW’s personal connection to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from Victor Weedn, chair of GW’s Department of Forensic Science.

 

Dr. Weedn, a forensic pathologist, joined the Army to help establish a DNA identification program. He founded the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), which became instrumental in identifying bodies during large-scale disasters. 

 

Through DNA sequencing in 1998, it was Dr. Weedn’s lab that identified the body of the unknown Vietnam War soldier as first lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie—who died over two decades earlier when his aircraft was shot down. Lt. Blassie, who was previously entombed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, was able to be returned to his family for a burial in St. Louis.

 

“Never again has a new soldier been buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns,” Dr. Weedn said.

 

The university will be honoring Veterans Day by dedicating its new Veterans Park on Monday. The new park honors all five branches of the United States Armed Forces and will provide a home for the university to recognize members of the GW community who have served their country. The park, located on H Street between 21st and 22nd, is a gift from Mr. Shenkman.

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