An Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony

Moments on tour

Wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery

As EF’s social media manager, I recently got to join a group of middle schoolers from Ruston, LA, on their EF student tour to Washington, D.C. This was my first time visiting our country’s capital—and while I loved seeing the city for myself, it was even more amazing getting to see this iconic location through the eyes of students. Together, we got to experience history in the places where it happened (and also make some new memories of our own).

Above: our tour at the Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Mall

There were so many incredible moments on tour, from exploring the Smithsonian museums to visiting Mount Vernon to taking pictures in front of the White House. However, the moment that will always stay with me is when our group visited the Arlington National Cemetery and four students got to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony.

For background, many EF Washington, D.C. tours include a visit to the Arlington National Cemetery, and a portion of our groups get the chance to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony as an additional experience. The ceremony takes place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a guarded memorial dedicated to U.S. service members who lost their lives at war and whose remains have not been identified. As the students on tour told me, they saw this ceremony as the ultimate opportunity to pay their respects to the servicemen and women who lost their lives fighting for their country

EF students at an Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony

In order to choose which students would actually get to lay down the wreath, Group Leader DeEtte W. had all travelers submit an essay explaining why they would like to be involved and what this unique honor would mean to them. The essays were submitted anonymously and read by three teachers and administrators, who then chose four students to participate.

One of these students was eighth-grader Jake H. In his essay, he explained that his family had a long history of military service, and that he would view this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as a true honor. To make the moment even more special, Jake’s father, a U.S. Army veteran named Curtis, was able to join him on tour as a chaperone. During the ceremony, Curtis said he was overwhelmed with pride. “To see Jake represent [his school] with the other students up there and give their respects to the unknown soldiers [during the Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony] was obviously very touching.”

Jake was also deeply impacted by the experience. As he explained, he was thinking about his dad and family members who served, but he also recognized the importance of acknowledging why the memorial exists. “I was just thinking about how it would be to be unknown,” Jake said. Curtis continued, “[The memorial’s] not for me, it’s not for my grandpa or anyone else in the family. It’s for the soldiers who didn’t come back.”

Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony in November

Student Eli W. also felt it was vital that these soldiers’ lives were not forgotten. He felt especially connected to the ceremony because his family also has ties to the military. He plans to speak with his family about ways they can all honor the soldiers, even though they do not know details about their lives. One day, Eli hopes to serve in the military himself.

All of the students who participated felt a strong sense of honor. As eighth-grader Melissa L. said, “I felt some sense of joy, but more pride, I think, because I’ve heard that soldiers don’t want your tears, even though they deserve it. It was very emotional, but I felt very proud that I was up there.”

Melissa wanted to participate because her parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States, where it took them a long time to become citizens. “I’ve been brought up [to believe] that freedom is not free, and you have to work for it,” she said. “I thought I would do the ceremony to honor that.”

It was very emotional, but I felt very proud that I was up there.

Melissa L., Student

In addition to the students, the ceremony also made a lasting impact on DeEtte. “We go on this trip so that we can learn about our country and our history, and honor those who have served,” she said. “So when I see [our students] presenting the wreath, it makes me proud that we have great children, great students who take this seriously and want to participate in something like this.”

And of course, the ceremony also had an impact on me as an observer. What struck me the most was how much the demeanor of the students changed. Throughout the week of the tour, the group was very excited to explore and learn about the city, but in this moment, everyone was silent. We all recognized the reason that we were there at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: to pay our respects and to honor fallen soldiers who never returned home. I think everyone felt the impact in the moment, and hearing from the four students on just how much it affected them will always stay with me.

Want to experience Washington, D.C. with your students?

Find your itinerary, then consider adding on an Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying ceremony.

Jacqui Collins

Jacqui is a social media manager at EF. She enjoys making TikTok videos of her Siberian husky rescue dog, watching the latest trending shows on Netflix, and planning her next travel adventures.

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