Sentinels serve the nation, survivors of fallen comrades
November 10, 2009
I interviewed a young NCO several months ago. He was the first Soldier I had met who served as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. However, I had heard of the legendary service that these Soldiers perform, ceaselessly standing watch over the nation's fallen and, in particular, those who could not be identified.
I assumed that to remain ramrod straight as these Soldiers do, pacing their circuit in front of the tomb while showing no emotion, must require Soldiers who have no lacrimal glands-men who are missing the "milk of human kindness."
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The young NCO kept a box of tissues nearby while we talked because he often choked up while relating his experiences during his tour as a Sentinel, even though it had been several years ago.
He told me that he did not want to be identified in the story; he didn't want to do anything that might detract from the honor and respect that he wished to be rendered to the unknowns. He didn't want the story to be about him, but about those Soldiers-the ones who lost their lives serving their country, as well as those still living but serving to watch over the unknowns' final resting places.
With one combat deployment under his belt and probably more to come, this NCO said that he hoped the same honor would be paid to him should he die in combat.
Given scientific advances, America is generally able to identify her war dead these days, so perhaps no more unknowns will be added to the tomb. In light of that, it would be unlikely for this Soldier to be interred as an unknown.
But he seemed broken-hearted at the thought that some Americans appear to care so little for those who not only gave their lives, but their futures, their very identities, in service to our country. He was disturbed that less than 10 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces. He was passionate about the honor and respect fallen Soldiers deserve.
He explained what an effort it was to remain silent and composed when widows would come to Arlington to bury their husbands and stop by the Tomb, grieving yet comforted by the vigilance and respect paid by the Sentinel.
He asserted that he was not the exception to the rule of tender-heartedness among the Sentinels of the Old Guard, but rather the norm. He explained that the mirror sunglasses they wear with their meticulous uniforms serve more than one purpose-often the sunglasses help to mask the battle going on behind the lenses as Sentinels struggle to control themselves emotionally.
It's not a combat tour of duty, and few would claim that it warrants hazardous duty pay-nevertheless, these guards pay a price for their service.
The Soldiers who guard the tomb spend hours memorizing the history of Arlington National Cemetery, practicing the pace, studying the manual of arms, preparing and maintaining their dress blue wool uniforms in immaculate condition, then performing the elaborate ritual when the guard is changed.
The sentinels work on a special form of pacing, smoothly transferring their weight from their heels to the outside of their feet then smoothly gliding up to the balls of their feel so their heads don't bob up and down. It creates a fluid form of movement that adds to the solemn nature of their mission.
I found it touching and comforting that there are still men like that serving in the Army. I have interviewed many Soldiers and have often been amazed at their tales of courage and heroism.
But men who will shed a tear when others are hurting, physically or emotionally, men who still care about ideals like honor, duty, and patriotism-these are real gems. They're men of valor just as surely as their comrades who endure three, four, (and sometimes more) deployments in harm's way; these are true warriors.
Even if you cannot visit Arlington National Cemetery or the Tomb of the Unknowns, I hope part of your Veterans Day is spent reflecting on the sacrifices that others have made.