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FFCHS JROTC Cadets Honor Service Men and Women with Wreath-Laying Ceremony at Arlington

Christy McGee
JROTC soldiers solute wreath at Tomb of the Unknown soldier

Day 31,692 of the Guard Watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will always be associated with the Fountain-Fort Carson High School (FFCHS) JROTC. That’s because on Sunday, April 7, 2024, four JROTC cadets laid a wreath at the Tomb on behalf of their program, their school, and the school district.

Arlington National Cemetery is located in Washington, D.C. adjacent to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army. It sits on land that once belonged to a relative of George Washington and eventually Robert E. Lee. The first military burial at Arlington took place on May 13, 1864. It serves as a final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families. Notably, President John F. Kennedy and family are buried there, as well as Audie L. Murphy and Thurgood Marshall.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Arlington National Cemetery’s most iconic memorial. The neoclassical, white marble sarcophagus stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. Since 1921, it has provided a final resting place for one of America’s unidentified World War I service members, and Unknowns from later wars were added in 1958 and 1984. The Tomb has also served as a place of mourning and a site for reflection on military service. It has been guarded since 1926 and guarded 24/7 since 1937.

Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has long been a way for individuals and organizations to honor the sacrifices of American service members. Presidents, politicians, public figures and foreign dignitaries have all paid their respects in this way. The opportunity to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony is also open to the general public, including school groups.

SGM Rod Smith, JROTC instructor, first heard about this opportunity in the fall of 2023, when discussing it with friends who were veterans and worked in D.C. He immediately knew it was something he wanted to participate in and for his cadets to experience. He presented the idea to the other JROTC Cadre and the school principal, and everyone agreed to the trip without hesitation.

A maximum of four participants are allowed to participate in a wreath laying ceremony. SGM Smith knew he wanted four cadets who were planning to go into the military at some point in their career. The cadets who volunteered for this once-in-a-lifetime experience were: senior Lucas Weeks, senior Richard Vazquez, junior Colin Kelly, and junior Manny Ordway. The FFC8 communications office also sent one person as an additional chaperone and to help the team capture their historic opportunity.

Four JROTC students in Washington D.C.

JROTC Cadet Weeks said he wanted to be part of this because he “wanted to pay tribute to soldiers resting at Arlington National Cemetery. I also saw it as an amazing honor that not everyone gets a chance to experience, and I didn’t want to pass it up.” JROTC Cadet Kelly said he was happy to hear about the opportunity and wanted to join the group “not only to pay respects to the fallen warriors of our country, but also to my family members and father’s friends who are no longer with us.” JROTC Cadet Ordway wanted to be part of this because “SGM has told me a lot of stories about himself and his soldiers and how much they mean to him. So, hearing that he was making this trip in part to honor them, I wanted to do it for him and for them as well.”

Offering flowers at a memorial site is a ritual that occurs around the world, symbolizing the beauty and brevity of life. Floral tributes are made each day at Arlington National Cemetery — at funeral services, public ceremonies and individual visits to a loved one's gravesite. SGM Smith worked with a local florist to select a beautiful wreath that would represent the school – with white lilies, blue hydrangeas, and dark purple irises giving the overall effect of the wreath being in the school colors. (Pictured Below) It also had a white ribbon across it with the words “Fountain-Fort Carson Army JROTC” displayed proudly across the front center of the wreath.

Soldier stands next to Fountain-Fort Carson high school's JROTC wreath

Each year, millions of people from around the world visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some visit to honor military service and sacrifice; some to mourn a loved one; and some because of the Tomb’s historical and national significance.

A little after 12 noon EST, JROTC cadets were escorted down the steps from the amphitheater by Specialist Tristan Smith, who was from Parker, Colorado. As he was walking down the steps, JROTC Cadet Kelly felt the weight of the honor in being part of a ceremony like this. “I knew not a lot of people get to do what I’m doing right now,” he said about his thoughts when presenting the wreath. JROTC Cadet Vazquez also described feeling immense pride and honor. “Hearing the music playing behind me, walking with the guard soldier, and approaching the Tomb of the Unknown filled me with a sense of patriotism I have never felt before. I was truly humbled and honored to be there.”

JROTC soldiers solute wreath at Tomb of the Unknown soldier
JROTC soldiers solute wreath at Tomb of the Unknown soldier

The JROTC Cadets spent about an hour with Tomb guard soldiers before the wreath-laying ceremony. They got to ask questions about being part of the 3rd Infantry Regiment and the Old Guard. They learned more details about the significance of the ceremony and the guard inspection during the changing of the guard. The cadets also heard stories and ideas about bringing back the significance of the Tomb of the Unknowns to their school, ideas which the Trojan community may see come to fruition later this spring as Cadets wish to share their experience with their classmates. After the ceremony, SGM Smith commented that this may become an annual tradition for the Trojan JROTC.

Reflecting over the experience, SGM Smith said, “It was not as much the Tomb as it was the visit to gravesites of family members, friends and loved ones resting in Arlington that I’ll remember. I was literally moved to see the sons of our nation’s Soldiers seek out their parents’ friends and other Soldiers that had given the ultimate sacrifice to their nation. They knew each of their stories and that was extremely impressive. Then, to go the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and to feel that ceremony and to see and hear the crowd as they became silent when the cadets began to move down the steps… was beyond anything I had ever imagined or experienced.”