NCO relates experience as Tomb Guard
November 10, 2009
- NCO stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. recalls his experiences as a Tomb Guard
- NCO declined to be identified since it was a privilege those he guarded were not afforded
ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment - more frequently called "The Old Guard" - marked its 150th anniversary this year. It is the oldest active unit in the Army, with missions that essentially preserve the Army's traditions and ceremonies.
Units include the Fife and Drum Corps, the Caisson Platoon, the Presidential Salute Battery, the Continental Color Guard, the U.S. Army Drill Team, and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Tomb Sentinels stand watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery, and the changing of the tomb guards is a ceremony marked with precise actions.
Sometimes the changing ceremony is done with such synchronization, the heel clicks executed by both sentinels sound at exactly the same instance. No space separates the sounds, so the audience thinks only one guard executed the click.
A Soldier who served with the Old Guard talked with the Turret about his service on condition that he remain anonymous - not for any reasons other than pride. He said he didn't want his name to be published when those he guarded weren't fortunate enough to have the same privilege.
For the sake of clarity, I'll call him 'Will.'
"Those folks sacrificed everything - their lives, their futures, and even their identities - so you could have your way of life, and I can put on this uniform every day," he said.
The exacting duties of the sentinels - from memorizing pages of facts about Arlington cemetery and those buried there, to the time spent keeping their uniforms spotless without blemish - prevents many from volunteering for the job.
"My goal was to be perfect - not so you can see it, but because they deserve it," Will said, quietly.
In fact, many of the details that the sentinels observe are based on respect for those who are buried in the Tomb - one each for World War I, World War II, and Korea. The previously unknown Soldier from the Vietnam war was finally identified, so his remains were moved to another burial site.
The guards wear no rank, for example, because they believe it would be unkind and disrespectful if those interred were outranked by their guards.
The sentinels have a precise drill they maintain during a watch. They walk 21 steps-symbolic of the 21 shots fired in a salute-on a cushioned mat lying in front of the white marble memorial. At the end of that mat the guard pivots, pauses for 21 seconds, moves his weapon to the outside shoulder, then walks another 21 steps in the opposite direction to the end of the mat, where the entire process is repeated countless times for the duration of the shift.
Shifts range from two hours to 30 minutes, depending on how many qualified sentinels are available, weather conditions, and hours of the cemetery.
While Arlington is a tourist destination for many in Washington, D.C., and the stately changing ceremony is impressive, Will said it's nothing compared to the emotions that the guards experience.
"The feeling people get would have to be multiplied by 100 to get close to the feeling (the guards) have when they actually perform their duties," he asserted.
Since record keeping began in 1936, the Tomb of the Unknowns has never been left unguarded. Until the official duties were assumed by the Old Guard in 1948, volunteers watched over the tomb.
"In the 61 years since, the Tomb has always been guarded, even on 9/11; even in gale-force winds, the guards have not left their posts," Will said.
The sentinels guard the tomb for two reasons: out of respect and to keep it safe.
In the early days of Arlington, families often picnicked on the grounds and the site of the tomb was a favorite spot due to its spectacular view of the city. In later years, some visitors attempted to acquire a "momento" of the tomb in the form of a marble chip off the memorial. During the Vietnam War, there was concern that protesters might try to deface the tomb with graffiti.
Briefings are given for Tomb visitors at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day, and tourists are invited to ask questions. Often, they ask "Why do you do these things'" Will confessed that the question has been a hot button for him; he answers those questions like this:
"Years ago, folks sat out on the front porch, drinking lemonade, talking of their man who served in the armed forces, wondering where he was, or sharing letters they might have received. Few families didn't have someone serving. Every day of his absence, they talked about him."
"There are some families to this day, who sit on their porches, wondering what happened. Their Soldier hasn't returned and they can only guess at his whereabouts. That's how patriotic Americans are."
"The worry those folks had 60 years ago is the same worry my wife and kids had when I was deployed. That's why we do it; not so you can 'look at me,' but we're doing these things for those who made the ultimate sacrifice."
Will said one of his memorable experiences occurred one night, near the cemetery's closing time. An elderly lady visited ANC often. One night when no one else was about, she whispered to him as he walked his shift.
"I know you can hear me even if you aren't allowed to talk to me," she said. "I just want to thank you for what you do. My father is buried here and I know you're here 24/7. It makes me feel so much better because I know he's never alone."
"If I have one opportunity to make a difference in your life," Will said, "and you remember (their sacrifices) 30 years from now, I have done my job."
Although sentinels receive a special Tomb Guard identification badge, which they are entitled to wear on their uniforms, Will said he doesn't normally wear his. Again, it is his effort to deflect attention from himself.
"Do yourself a favor; visit the Arlington National Cemetery," he urged. "(When you do) you're walking through your nation's history. Don't just visit the celebrities' graves, visit them all. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be wearing this uniform today."
While the duty is not an easy job, it's an important one to Will and the other sentinels.
"My time at the tomb was very moving," he said. "It was a unique experience, and I'll never forget it."
A fitting memory, since this is the motto of the Tomb Guard: "Soldiers never die until they're forgotten. Tomb Guards never forget."
(Maureen Rose writes for the Turret, the newspaper which serves the Fort Knox, Ky., community)