Maybe you have been there, on the high ground at Arlington National Cemetery, looking down on the orderly rows of white tombstones. Maybe you even stood there in silence with other tourists to observe the changing of the guard, and were moved by the absolute precision and timing of their actions, and the deep, sacred respect with which they honor those buried beneath that great sarcophagus. You've heard the great silence of the ceremony, punctuated by the clicking of the solitary guard's heals at the end of each section of their walk across the face of the tomb, and maybe even heard the playing of taps off in the distance as another veteran was being laid to rest in another part of the huge cemetery. It is all of that, of course, but it is so much more too.
That ground in Arlington, VA is hallowed ground. It is made so by those who have served their country in war and peace and who have found their final rest there. Those acres were once the private property of Robert E. Lee, who became the Commanding General of the Confederate Army after the breakout of the Civil War. The property was seized by the Union and almost immediately became, ironically, the burial grounds for the Union dead. It became the National Cemetery later and has been the receiving ground for veterans of all of our wars since that time to today.
On November 11, 1921, an unidentified soldier was laid to rest in the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery, and The Tomb of the Unknowns was created. The ceremonies you may have been privileged to witness at that site have been going on there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year ever since 1937. It is an unusual dedication you might think, remembering those who have fallen, but who cannot be or have not been identified, for whatever reason. But what more stark statement of dedication to country can there be than to die on the field of battle and then be completely unidentifiable. How do you honor such an ultimate sacrifice?
Here is how we Americans do it. These are some of the simple facts behind the ceremony that is done before this tomb every hour of every day.
Those who serve as Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns must be qualified members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard". These dedicated volunteers undergo intense physical training that includes marching, rifle drill, and uniform preparation.
Those wishing to serve as Sentinels also need to learn the history of the tomb, as well as the locations of the graves of nearly 300 veterans in Arlington National Cemetery. They must thoroughly memorize the ceremony of the changing of the guard, and after several months, they are tested on their training. More than 95% of their test answers must be correct in order to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. This badge consists of an upside-down laurel wreath, an image of the tomb, Greek images that represent the virtues of Victory, Valor, and Peace, and the words “Honor Guard. It is worn on the right pocket of the uniform jacket, and is a unique symbol of service as a Sentinel at the tomb.
Even then, it’s only temporary until the Sentinel has honorably served for nine months at the tomb, and if at any point in his life the Sentinel discredits the tomb he guarded, the Regimental Commander may revoke the badge.
Their uniforms must have no folds or wrinkles in them. Their shoes are specially made with extra-thick soles that ensure the sole and the heel are equal in height, so that the Sentinel’s back is perpendicular to the ground and so that he can perform his duties at a smooth formal gait, rather than at a bumpier march. They have steel toes and steel plates on the heel, as well as a steel “clicker” on the inside of the face of the heel that makes the loud sound you hear as they come to a halt, do an about face, and click the heals again. This is always done with a very precise, slightly exaggerated motion.
The Sentinel takes 21 steps from end to end of his walk in front of the Tomb, signifying the highest honor that can be paid a military member, the 21 gun salute. Each then hesitates for 21 seconds after his about face before walking to the other end in that stately, silent pace again, for the same reason. Each moistens his gloves to keep from losing the grip on his rifle. Each shifts the rifle to the shoulder away from the Tomb on each turn. The guard is changed every thirty minutes during the summer daytime, and every hour during the nighttime and during winter months. During their 24-hour shifts, Sentinels stay in living quarters right under the steps of the amphitheater.
In 2003 Hurricane Isabelle was approaching the Washington, D.C. area. Respecting the potential power of the hurricane, both the Senate and the Congress declared a two-day recess and retired to safety. A contingency plan was prepared for the Sentinels to retreat to the trophy room, above the tomb and with a clear view of it, in the face of the coming storm, but the Sentinels on duty decided the plan was not necessary.
The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns held their posts throughout the entire storm, soaked to the skin in the pelting rain and the heavy winds. You can be sure that they did it utterly alone as well. There were no tourists there to watch the silent, august ceremony. The Sentinels said, "Guarding the Tomb is not just an assignment, it is the highest honor that can be afforded a service person."
To serve in that unit is a privilege second to none. To witness their precision, their honor toward the dead, and their commitment to it as a sacred duty, makes the experience that much more noble and it ennobles all those who witness it.
If you have not seen this ceremony, you are missing something of great dignity. This kind of respect ought to be fostered not just there, but everywhere in this country. May they all rest in peace. You can be sure that they are guarded well.