By Seaman Victoria Ruiz and Seaman Yesenia Munoz, Naval History and Heritage Command (with assistance from MC1 Tim Comerford)
Dec. 7, 2013 was a bitingly cold day in Northern Virginia, made all the more so by having unseasonable warm days the few days before it. But as two Seaman made their way along the pathways of Arlington National Cemetery to the Tomb of the Unknowns, their attention was less on their cold hands and feet and more on the ceremony less than an hour away.
Yeoman Seaman Victoria Ruiz and Information Systems Technician Seaman Yesenia Munoz were hand-selected by Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Normally performed by senior military and political leaders, they were surprised and honored to be selected by NHHC to represent the command and the Navy at such an auspicious occasion.
Ruiz was both intimidated and excited.
“Initially after being informed that I was going to represent Naval History and Heritage Command at the wreath laying ceremony, I was filled with emotions of honor, joy, excitement, and intimidation.” Along with many others, they trekked their way past the thousands of tombstones of service members, a solemn reminder of the sacrifice that may be asked of all military service members. They approached the memorial amphitheater adjacent to the tomb with hushed voices.
The two Seamen found John Rodgaard, a U.S. Navy retired Captain, representing the wreath’s sponsor the Naval Order of the United States, who introduced them to the two U.S. Naval Sea Cadets who would assist them in presenting and laying the wreath.
The ceremony, marking Pearl Harbor Day, was set to begin at 12:15 p.m. and that meant they had the chance to observe one of the tomb’s most acclaimed events – the changing of the Guard. The perfectly-choreographed military ceremony is performed hourly by “The Old Guard” the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment. Immediately afterward, their part was to begin, so they all took their places at the head of the white marble stairway leading to the tomb, flanked by photographers and onlookers.
Seaman Munoz relates that at first she was confused by the change of events.
“There were two sea cadets doing the wreath ceremony with me and Seaman Ruiz. The Soldier told us to get in a height line which meant I was one of the two shortest and had to place the wreath on the ‘Tomb of the Unknowns.’ At first I thought it was going to be me and Ruiz, but it wasn’t. It was me and a young Sea Cadet. So now I was responsible for laying the wreath and trying to set a positive example for Cadet [Saddique] Stevens.”
As the ceremony began Munoz’s tensions mounted:
“I was nervous, not because it was our first time to lay a wreath, but because there were so many people. I took a deep breath and told myself “this is such a great honor!” Then I became extremely anxious.”
Ruiz wanted nothing more than perfection from herself.
“I wanted my part to be as flawless as that of the Old Guard and to not make a single mistake in the delivery and laying of the wreath. The gift of flowers at a memorial or a burial site is a ritual that occurs in nearly every corner of the world. The difference with those at Arlington, like the Dec. 7 wreath laying ceremony, is that the price paid by those we honor.”
Munoz kept her military bearing as she started down to the tomb.
“The moment came where we had to start walking down the stairs. It was hard to maintain step with the Guard, but we managed. Then another Guard told me and the young Sea Cadet to grab the wreath and place it on the stand.”
As she placed the wreath on the stand in front of the tomb, the Seamen, the Cadets and the Guards all snapped to attention and saluted. Silence prevailed as they saluted and a member of the 3rd Infantry regiment played the lonely serenade of taps on the bugle.
There was only a small part left said Munoz.
“Then I had to call about face. I was a little tense because I feared the Sea Cadet couldn’t hear me. I was happy that the cadet nor I messed up.”
As they marched up the steps, Munoz was glad. Though it took less than five minutes to complete, it was a good day for the Navy and herself.
“I was pleased and honored to have been a part of it. That we did a good job was satisfying, but not as much as honoring the sacrifice of those who lost their lives on Dec. 7, 1941.”
To Ruiz, her excellence during the ceremony was all in keeping with the Navy’s core values — Honor, Courage and Commitment.
“I was proud to uphold our Navy core values by committing to a ritual of remembrance to those who fought and lost their lives at Pearl Harbor., I felt an overwhelming sense of honor to carry out one of the most respectful ceremonies known to military members.”
As Ruiz caught sight of the words on part of the tomb, they became a potent reminder to her.
“Peace, victory, valor. These three powerful words are represented by Greek figures on the eastern panel of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. They are also three compelling words that, thanks to this experience, I have come to have a better understanding.”
As they left the historic cemetery, both seamen smiled, glad to be warm, and proud of their service in the United States Navy.
Two Sailsors from Naval History and Heritage Command Honor Sacrifice at Pearl Harbor