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Cotton Speaks to the Society of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Banquet

November 13, 2016

Society of the Honor Guard
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Banquet

Thank you. Thank you very much for that kind introduction and thank you all for the warm welcome.

It's so good to be back with my old battle buddies from The Old Guard. I want to thank Tom Tudor, partly for extending me the honor of speaking here tonight, but mostly for your many years of service to our country, to the Tomb, and to the Society.

I nearly didn't make it tonight. A few days ago, my dad's best friend, Jack Shatford, passed away. Dad and Jack were in the same rifle squad in Vietnam. Today was Jack's memorial service. But Jack was a patriot, and a loyal soldier. He was as reliable as the day is long, and we all decided he'd want me to be here with you, keeping my commitments and doing my duty, just like you do yours every day.

It wasn't so long that I was ago that I was out there with you. Next Sunday will mark the ten-year anniversary of my return home from Iraq-something a lot of us thought would never happen, either because we couldn't imagine surviving or we couldn't imagine not having our deployments extended. And it was barely eight years ago that I left Fort Myer for Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, those memories can at times seem somewhat distant, but they never fade for a simple reason: as I travel our country, I'm asked more often about The Old Guard, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Tomb of the Unknowns than about any other topic.

It's true. People want to know about you and my time at Arlington more than anything else. More than Ranger School or Airborne School, more than Iraq or Afghanistan. More than the U.S. Senate, more than my fellow senators. Even more, if you can believe it, than your incoming commander-in-chief. That's how famous and beloved you are. As he might say, you are big league.

Even when I'm not asked about it, I can see the recognition, the affection, the smiles, and the head nods in the crowd when my introduction mentions The Old Guard. They immediately feel a connection to you and the hallowed ground of Arlington

Unfortunately, sometimes I have to disappoint their impressions of us. It's pretty common for people to ask me if I guarded the Tomb. I tell them no, you see I was an officer, and officers don't guard the Tomb-they're afraid we'll screw it up.

Now don't laugh too hard at officers' expense. A lot of people have read the internet rumors about the Sentinels. You know, the stories about how you can never drink or curse again. They seem pretty hopeful that the stories are true. I guess if they were here tonight, they'd hope that bar is for wives and girlfriends. But I set them straight. I tell them the Sentinels are amazing, but they're still human, even more than that, they're still soldiers and, on occasion, some soldiers have been known to have a drink and maybe even use R-rated language. After all, you can't expect a T-Rex to have table manners.

Why is the Tomb so popular? It seems to me there are a couple of reasons. First, the Unknowns and what they stand for. No one but God knows the soldiers whose remains rest in the crypt. Stripped of their own particular identity-a name and rank, a unit, a family back home-the Unknowns have come to represent the bravery and sacrifice of every soldier, especially those who gave what President Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion." Every American can claim the Unknowns as their own, and cherish and honor them as they would their own.

This was all by design after World War One, and the story of how the Tomb came to be is a love story of the highest kind-love of the most beautiful and noblest things.

World War One wasn't our bloodiest war-the Civil War had more than five times as many casualties-but it was our first major overseas war, with more than 116,000 Americans dead in Europe, raising the new question of how to handle their remains. And with the then-recent introduction of ID tags, most remains were identifiable. Military leaders tended to favor leaving the remains in Europe, for a variety of reasonable logistical, financial, and diplomatic reasons.

But war widows and mothers had a different idea. And I can assure you their opinions carry a lot of weight over at the Capitol. From letters to hearings to marches, they won the debate, and Congress approved $5 million dollars in repatriation expenses within a year after the war ended. All but 30,000 soldiers ultimately returned to our shores.

There was still, however, the case of a few thousand sets of unknown remains. Inspired by ceremonies in 1920 in London and Paris honoring unidentified soldiers, many Americans began to advocate for our own shrine of unknowns. And Congress once again did what we can do pretty well, respond to popular opinion about our veterans.

Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, a decorated young veteran just elected in 1920, introduced the resolution to create the Tomb in one of his very first acts as a congressman. With overwhelming support from the public, Gold Star families, veterans organizations, and military heroes like Black Jack Pershing, President Wilson signed the resolution into law on his last day in office in 1921.

The Army then went to great lengths to prepare for the ceremony dedicating the Tomb just a few months later on what was then known as Armistice Day. Four unknown sets of remains were identified in France. To ensure the Unknown could never be identified, the four remains were stripped of all possible identifying marks and materials; all records about them were destroyed. The soldiers standing watch over the remains even randomly rearranged the caskets so the guard shift wouldn't know which was which.

On the appointed day, October 24, 1921, a young, twice-wounded Sergeant Edward Younger walked into the room. He remembered walking past the first casket and stopping at the second. He said, "Then something made me stop. And a voice seemed to say, ‘This is a pal of yours.' I don't know how long I stood there. But finally I put the roses on the second casket and went back into the sunlight."

The Unknown then began his return home. A long departure ceremony from France was matched with an arrival ceremony across the river at Navy Yard with honors befitting the Admiral of the Fleet. Next, the Unknown laid in state at the Capitol visited by presidents, senators, justices of the Supreme Court, ambassadors of foreign nations, and a hundred thousand others. Most notable in the crowds were the war mothers whose dead sons were never recovered and identified, wondering if maybe, just maybe, the Unknown was their own son, finally come home to them. One mother explained,

Our government does not know what it has done for the thousands of bereaved mothers in the United States. I know how I felt when I viewed the bier of the man who represented all of America's fallen sons ... The thought came to me that in the coffin ... of one American soldier the hearts of every mother who lost her boy were carried to the final resting place.

The next day, November 11, 1921, a funeral procession unlike any seen before or since transported the Unknown from the Capitol to Arlington. The procession included President Harding, Black Jack Pershing, the Congress, the Supreme Court, Medal of Honor winners, and thousands of others. At the amphitheater, President Harding choked up while delivering what happened to be the first presidential address to be broadcast in real-time across the country, to give you a sense of the how important the day was. Finally, the Unknown was lowered into his final resting place, where he remains to this day.

What an incredible story, what a testament to the love our nation feels for its guardians. You could tell the same story about the Unknowns from World War Two and the Korean War. And that story continues today, as millions make a pilgrimage each year to the Tomb. They come not just to honor the Unknowns and remember those wars, but as Hamilton Fish said, to honor all the sacrifices made by all Americans, from the Revolutionary War to the mountains of Afghanistan today. The Unknowns belong to us all and are beloved by all because they represent the sacrifice on which our nation rests.

But all those people come for a second reason, too. They come for you. They come to watch the Tomb Sentinels stand your eternal vigil. And let me tell you, they are in awe of what you do.

Not too many Americans serve in our military these days. For those who didn't serve, or who don't have family who served, you might be their most immediate, first-hand witness to what happens in the military. Your skill and proficiency, your care and attention to detail, your faithfulness and discipline-all these things set the highest of standards of military conduct and character. Our fellow citizens see all that and imagine it on the battlefield, and then they have little wonder why our soldiers accomplish such amazing feats of valor.

What they see in you at the Tomb is why the military remains the most respected institution in our society today. It's not what you do, it's who you are. It's not our victories on the battlefield, impressive as those are, it's the character you display. It's the character that has withstood physical hardship and the elements and the stresses of every minute of every day for 79 years.
Even when no one's looking, even when no one would know, you know that those Unknowns would know, you know that He would know. You hold yourself to that highest of standards. And in that regard, you truly are the ambassadors for our military to our citizenry.

And you're the ambassadors to the next generation of warriors, to all those little boys and girls who watch in awe on that plaza and say to themselves, "I'm going to do that one day." A few will become a Sentinel. I bet some of you here had that experience as a child. Many more will serve with distinction in other ways because of what they saw from you.

And soon enough, even more people will see you and know the story of the Unknowns. Yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the Tomb, so we're five years away from the centennial. I'm proud to have sponsored legislation with John McCain to establish a commemoration for that 100-year anniversary. I expect it will pass into law as part of the annual defense bill in the next few weeks.

The centennial will bring yet more attention upon you, deservedly so-at the Tomb, around the country, and around the world. It'll be yet another measure of "honored glory" for the Unknowns. And it'll be another opportunity for you, the Tomb Sentinels, to demonstrate your total and wholehearted dedication to your "sacred duty."

I know you'll be ready, and I know you'll do your duty.

Thank you, God bless you, God bless the Unknowns, and God bless the United States of America.