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Lester Prairie girl earns chance to lay wreath on Tomb of the Unknowns

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Lester Prairie resident Elizabeth Pawelk earned a rare honor recently – the opportunity to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

Elizabeth is the daughter of Fred and Heidi Pawelk of Lester Prairie.

She is an eighth-grade student at Trinity Lutheran School in Waconia.

The wreath-laying ceremony took place during a class trip to Washington, DC.

The trip was even more special to the Pawelk family because Fred was able to go along as a chaperone. Neither he nor Elizabeth had been to Washington before, so they were able to experience it for the first time together.

Elizabeth’s teacher, Julie Dierks, arranged an essay contest as a way to select one boy and one girl to earn the honor of laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns (also called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) during the trip.

The students all wrote essays explaining why they wanted to participate in the ceremony.

The essays were judged by Dierks, as well as by outside judges.

Elizabeth said her essay was about how participating in the ceremony would be a way for her to honor her great grandparents and other family members who served in the military, as well as all other veterans who died serving their country.

Elizabeth was chosen as the girl representative, and her classmate, Paul Herbes of St. Bonifacius, was chosen as the boy representative.

The ceremony takes place during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Dierks explained that it is very ceremonial. Observers must remain quiet during the ceremony, and a soldier even comes out to make sure that participants in the wreath-laying are properly dressed.

Heidi said they received a copy of the dress code policy for the ceremony soon after Elizabeth was chosen to participate.

“It is a big deal,” Dierks said.

“It was pretty cool to be able to do this,” Elizabeth said of the ceremony.

Dierks said the visit to Arlington is a valuable experience for the students.

“It is unreal to them until they see all those graves,” she said.

Fred said they learned that Arlington National Cemetery was built on the site of a farm overlooking Washington that had been owned by Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Dierks said this was the sixth year her class has traveled to Washington. The school began the program as a finale to the American history class.

“We learned about a lot of the wars before we went on the trip,” Elizabeth said.

This year, 26 students and 10 parents traveled to Washington May 10 to 14.

The students participated in fundraising events during the year to help pay for the trip.

During their stay in Washington, their days were full of activities, including visits to several museums, such as the Museum of Natural History, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International Spy Museum, and the Air and Space Museum.

They also visited many popular monuments and memorials, including the Washington Monument, the VietNam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and Mount Vernon.

“This year, we were fortunate enough to be able to tour the pentagon, too,” Dierks said.

They also made an unscheduled trip to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“I wanted the kids, when they see an event on television, to be able to say, ‘I was there, I was in that building,’” Dierks explained.

Each day, they were on the bus by 7 a.m. and continued their tour until late in the evening.

The trip to Washington gives students “a whole different view” of history, according to Dierks.

“This year, the students were enthralled with the Holocaust Museum. It makes it real to them,” she explained.

“The Holocaust Museum was phenomenal,” Fred commented.

“It is a great experience for the kids,” Dierks said of the Washington trip. “Everyone should go at least once.”

In addition to the wreath-laying ceremony, one of Elizabeth’s favorite parts of the trip was spending time at the Washington Monument.

She liked the view from the top of the monument, and being able to look down and see the city from above.

Being able to see the city in person changed Elizabeth’s perspective.

“It was different seeing it than just learning about it,” she commented.

She said that one thing that surprised her about Washington was the number of trees that she saw. The city had more green space than she expected.

She said they learned why different buildings and monuments are there, and why things are located where they are.

She also liked their guide, whose nickname was “Mr. Map.” His real name was Clarence Shaw, and he was very knowledgeable, and told them stories about the places they visited.

The trip was Elizabeth’s first trip in an airplane.

“I liked being up that high,” she said with a smile. She is already lobbying her father for another trip by air in the future.

“It was a priceless experience,” Fred said. “It was neat to go with my daughter. I just can’t describe how that felt, to watch her lay the wreath at the tomb. I wish that every kid would be able to do that.”

The monuments to the veterans of the various wars made an impression on Fred.

“Those guys went through a lot,” he commented, adding that people have things much easier today due to the sacrifices of veterans.

Both Fred and Elizabeth said they learned a lot on their trip, and would recommend a visit to the nation’s capitol to others.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Fred said.

Elizabeth agreed. “Oh, yeah,” she said with a radiant grin. “I loved it.

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