Since July 2, 1937, the Unknown Soldiers interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery have never been alone. Sentinels who guard the Tomb constantly keep the Unknowns company through wind, rain, snow and heat. They maintain their vigil day and night; on weekends and holidays, the sentinels are there at the Tomb to guard the Unknown Soldiers and to ensure they will forever rest with dignity and honor.
The sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are a platoon of Soldiers from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). They go through a rigorous training cycle to earn the right to call themselves sentinels at the Tomb.
Although Soldiers who pass training are able to wear the prestigious Tomb Guard badge, the sentinels who earn the badge do not finish the training for the prestige of being one of only 576 Soldiers who have worn the badge; they do it because they are committed to giving back to these unknown Soldiers who gave everything they had - their lives, their identities - in sacrifice to their country.
As the winter holidays draw near, the dedication of these Soldiers will not waver. Before dawn on Christmas Eve, Sgt. Jonathan R. Pierce, the assistant commander of the relief for second relief, and seven other Soldiers, will report for duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They will guard the unknowns throughout the day and night, pacing silently for 21 steps in front of the Tomb to show visitors these Unknowns deserve the utmost respect and honor.
Pierce and his Soldiers will guard the Tomb until early Christmas morning. Only after the next relief of Soldiers arrives to take responsibility will they be able to go home.
Pierce has been assigned to the Tomb of the Unknowns for a year and a half. This will not be the first holiday he has not been with his Family because he was guarding the Tomb. In the past 12 months alone, Pierce has been on duty on Veteran's Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving Day. This will be the second Christmas Eve he has spent with the Unknowns.
Guarding the Tomb on holidays is a little different than it is during the rest of the year, said Pierce. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a very popular tourist destination. Each year, millions of people from around the world visit Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the most popular destination there.
But on holidays, few people are in the cemetery to visit the Unknown Soldiers, said Pierce. ''It's different - you don't see as many people here. But being there on days like that rekindles your dedication to see that the Soldiers who sacrificed their identity are never forgotten, never dishonored. It's a privilege and an honor to be the one who gets to watch over them."
Although his Family in Tri-cities, Wash., will miss him at the holidays, Pierce said they understand his commitment, and are supportive of it. ''They're very, very proud of me," he said. ''The reason I volunteered to be assigned to the Tomb is because my dad told me about it. He told me how special the Tomb was. And he was right."
Pierce said neither he nor his fellow Soldiers who guard the Tomb on the holidays mind that they cannot be with their Families. ''We all understand that any sacrifice we make is nothing compared to what the Unknown Soldiers sacrificed."