Eric Watson ’91 wasn’t envisioning himself as a U.S. Marine Corps aviator when he first came to Syracuse University. The Washington D.C., native originally intended on studying computer science, but as is the case with many college students, Watson realized…
IVMF Staff Member and Former Sergeant of the Guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Participates in Tomb’s Centennial
U.S. Army veteran Bart Womack proudly served for 29 years as an enlisted service member, deploying to such locations as Haiti, Kosovo and Iraq, and retiring as a command sergeant major. But it was his assignments as part of the military guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, that are a special highlight for him in service to his country.
“I tell people that was the best duty of my career, because I didn’t think of it as a job,” says Womack, a program manager for Onward to Opportunity with the University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “It wasn’t about me, ever.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 10, he was back at the hallowed ground to help commemorate the tomb’s 100th anniversary, placing flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
For the first time in nearly 100 years, and as part of the centennial Commemoration, the public was able to walk on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza and lay flowers in front of the tomb on Nov. 9 and 10. The tomb was designed by alumnus Lorimer Rich 1914, a School of Architecture graduate who won the commission through a national competition. This week’s event allowed visitors to personally pay their respects to the unknown soldiers, a privilege otherwise given only to “The Old Guard,” the sentinels of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
“What an absolute and historic honor it was to be among thousands of people from around the world who paid their respects by placing flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery,” Womack says. “In this celebratory gesture commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there were 50-minute waiting times to make your way onto the coveted plaza and stand in front of one of the United States’ most precious gifts.”
This was the third ceremony Womack participated in as a civilian, and the first where he placed a flower on the sarcophagus himself. Womack also participated in ceremonies while in uniform. He was a relief commander at the tomb from 1986 to 1988 and was the 16th sergeant of the guard from 1991 to 1993.
“Having been blessed to walk the mat as a sentinel, change the guard as a relief commander and escort presidents to lay wreaths as the sergeant of the guard, this moment was just as special being out of the spit-and-polished Tomb Guard uniform,” Womack says.
Womack’s selfless service is part of a legacy of tomb sentinels that dates to the 1920s. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier draws thousands of visitors to Arlington National Cemetery annually.
The three service members that are interned at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are symbolic of all unknown and missing American service members. It is the final resting place of unidentified service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. A fourth crypt is dedicated to the missing service members in Vietnam. The Vietnam crypt is empty because the Vietnam Unknown was later identified through DNA testing in 1999.
The tomb was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1921, and according to Arlington National Cemetery, 90,000 people paid their respects while the WWI unknown soldier laid in state in the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 9 and 10, 1921. The tomb consisted of a simple marble slab.
Later in 1931, a sarcophagus was added, replacing the slab. It was designed by WWI veteran and School of Architecture alumnus Lorimer Rich, who was a prolific designer of municipal buildings across the country and designed White Hall and the Women’s Building on Syracuse University’s campus. The sarcophagus is carved with three figures that represent peace, victory and valor.
Womack became the 318th tomb badge holder. Only the astronaut badge is awarded less often in the U.S. Army.
Working at the tomb requires giving up a part of your personal identity in order to honor the sacrifice of service members that gave up their identities to serve our country, says Womack.
“It was always about the unknowns and just exhibiting pride of who they were and who they are now,” Womack says. “That was always something special and something revered.”
After paying his respects at the tomb, Womack was welcomed back into the Tomb Guard Quarters, where he had spent his time during his guard assignments at Arlington—training and taking the utmost care with his uniform.
“It was a blast connecting with the current regime, watching how they did the same things as we had done some 28 years prior,” Womack says. “Adorned in their official polos and diligently spit shining their built-up shoes, they shared ‘new-school’ stories, while I was just as thrilled to go back down memory lane and share ‘old-school’ stories.”
Womack also located his name on the guard’s badge board; his was number 318 awarded in 1987. Currently, the last badge awarded is number 695. The first badge was awarded in 1958.
“When you’re serving there, it never dawns on you the special company that you are a part of. I was proud to have my picture taken standing alongside those names who vowed to uphold line six of the Sentinel’s Creed: ‘My standard will remain perfection,’” Womack says.
The attention to detail he learned at the tomb still influences his work with veterans today, says Womack. He was proud to represent Syracuse University on the 100th anniversary of the tomb.
“What an honor to play a role—to represent the University, to have that connection to the architect,” Womack says. “I was able to get so close to what Lorimer Rich designed, and it has such a lasting impact on a lot of people’s lives.”