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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier opens rare opportunity to visitors

A hallowed area in Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to America's unidentified war dead is open to the public for the first time in 100 years.

A sacred part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier usually only visited by presidents and foreign dignitaries is open to the public this week in honor of the 100th anniversary of the memorial dedicated to America's unidentified war casualties.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is usually reserved for the sentinels who stand guard and presidents and other dignitaries presenting a wreath or flowers.

Ahead of Veterans Day on Thursday, the American public is being given the chance to step forward on the plaza and pay their respects by placing flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The special opportunity is available on Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST by registering online in advance.

TODAY's Craig Melvin traveled to the site of the sacred white marble sarcophagus to speak with a gold star mother who regularly visits Arlington as well as a senior member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” who keep watch day and night at the tomb.

The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1921, after the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War I were exhumed from a military cemetery in France, flown to the United States, and buried in a ceremony officiated by President Warren G. Harding.

Remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were later interred at the tomb in the 1950s. The remains of a Vietnam War veteran were buried there in 1984, but they were exhumed in 1998 and buried at a Missouri military cemetery at the request of the soldier's family after he was positively identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, according to the Arlington National Cemetery website.

Cindy Chip, whose son Sgt. Michael Hardegree died while serving in Iraq in 2007, is among the more than 12,000 people who have signed up so far to lay flowers at the tomb on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We don’t know that soldier’s name," she told Craig on TODAY Tuesday. "We don’t know anything about him except that he was an American soldier and he gave his life for his country. And we will never forget him.

"And every mother in her heart, that is what we want to say. Just don’t forget them. Just don’t forget that he lived. And that’s what that tomb says to me. This country will never forget it."

Chip's son is buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. She is a frequent visitor who first experienced the solemnity of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when she was 15.

"We came up here and we watched the change of the guard at the tomb," she said. "I was so profoundly moved by that, and I never forgot it."

Visiting her son's grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become a regular part of her life.

"It’s service for me," she said. "I’ve taken Mike’s service and I’ve made it my service. Coming to the tomb, coming to this place, it helps me because I’m doing that service."

The unknown soldiers are also never alone, as The Old Guard has kept watch ever since being designated as the Army's ceremonial unit in 1948.

This week marks a rare opportunity for the public to visit the solemn area that The Old Guard watches every hour of every day.

Sgt. Trevor Drahem is a senior member of the unit who is responsible for rigorously inspecting the uniform of the soldier coming on to patrol. The Guard maintains a strict process that includes facing east and north for 21 seconds apiece and taking 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb in honor of the 21-gun salute, the highest symbolic military honor.

"I really hope that they take away the gravity of the experience," Drahem said on TODAY. "As guards, we’re out there every day. We see a lot. We feel a lot. We get to experience a lot. And I hope that the public can take away a little bit of what we feel being able to be so close to the unknowns."