Tomb of the Unknown Soldier holds special place and meaning for Army Chaplain
By Mel Slater, Chaplain Center and School
Nov. 11, 2021 marks the 100th Anniversary of the dedication of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb was dedicated Nov. 11, 1921 during the presidency of Warren G. Harding and three years after the armistice of World War I.
Since that time, thousands of Americans and visitors from around the world have traveled to the memorial at Arlington Cemetery to pay respects to those who are “known but to God.”
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands physically and symbolically at the heart of the cemetery and the heart of the nation.
“This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a lasting symbol of the courage, bravery, and sacrifices of generations of American Soldiers. The nation is forever indebted to all who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom,” said Christine Wormuth, Secretary of the Army.
This is a solemn and special time for one Chaplain School chaplain, Chap. (Maj.) Brandon Denning. Denning is the only person in the history of the United States Army to serve as both tomb guard and chaplain.
“Tomb guards live by the motto, ‘Soldiers never die until they are forgotten, tomb guards never forget.’ Anyone who visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier should leave with a reminder that freedom has a cost. It was an honor to serve those Unknown Soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom; their identities,” said Denning. ‘The constant vigil at the Tomb of the unknown Soldier serves as a living reminder to all Americans of the sacrifices that were made for this great nation. We must never forget what is asked of all service members when we take the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Denning was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1977. He enlisted in the Infantry in 1996 where he served as the National Color Bearer for Arlington National Cemetery funerals (C Company, 3rd US Infantry “The Old Guard”) before becoming the 453rd Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After his enlisted service he attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and received a Bachelor’s of Arts in communications in 2004.
An ordained minister by The Southern Baptist Convention, Denning earned his Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas in 2008. His focus of study was in biblical languages and included an additional concentration in pastoral counseling. He also earned a Masters of Arts in Bible exposition from Columbia International University with a concentration in preaching in 2020.
Denning has served as a chaplain since 2008 in both operational and garrison assignments to include battalion chaplain in the 82nd Airborne, The Old Guard, JFK Special Warfare Center and School and Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson. He is the current homiletics subject matter expert for USACHCS.
Denning returned to The Old Guard as Chaplain for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from 2011-2013.
“Tomb guards form a tight community. The Tomb Guard Badge is the least awarded badge in the U. S. Army. I am the 453rd Guard of the 692 tomb guards to have this honor since 1931,” said Denning. “I am also the only Chaplain to have served as a tomb guard in the history of the U.S. Army. You can imagine how surprised tomb guards were when I arrived for duty as their chaplain. So, I was immediately accepted and earned the right to speak into their lives in maintaining standards of our tradition and also in spiritual matters.”
The Chaplain Corps of the Army and Navy have been a part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier since its beginning. Several took part in the inaugural ceremony.
Army Chief Chaplains, Chap. (Col.) John T. Axton presided over the dedication on Nov. 11, 1921. The group of chaplains also included Chaplain John B. Frazier, Supervisor Chaplains Corps, U.S. Navy; Dr. Morris S. Lazaron, Chaplain at Large, U.S. Army; and Rev. Charles H. Brent, Senior Chaplain of the American Expeditionary Forces who read the burial service.
The public was able to experience and participate in the commemorative events both at the cemetery and virtually from Nov. 9-11.
“This memorial inspires reflection on service, valor, sacrifice and mourning. As a memorial site and grave of three unknown American service members, the Tomb connects visitors with the legacy of the United States Armed Forces throughout our history. Throughout 2021, Arlington National Cemetery is holding events to commemorate the centennial,” U.S. Army statement.