Guard Duty at The Tomb of the Unknowns: Never More Sacred

An unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to the 1920s preserves a legacy, as a documentary earlier this year made clear

by Katherine Harris | Updated 11 Nov 2017 at 11:35 AM

Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday morning, Nov. 11, 2017, led a wreath-laying ceremony to honor our nation’s veterans at The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. —The Editors

On hallowed ground, a lone soldier stands on an open plaza. Twenty-one steps. Turn. He then faces the tomb for 21 seconds. Stands at attention, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The number 21 is symbolic of the 21-gun salute, which is the highest military honor.

The soldier continues his solitary walk. Battered by bone-chilling wind, blizzards, hurricanes or scorching heat, nothing fazes this soldier. He is a sentinel, a guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

The tomb guards maintain a constant vigil at the tomb, no matter the weather conditions. He and a small group of soldiers have one of the most sacred missions in the military, and he would walk through fire to honor and protect the fallen, nameless soldiers under his watch. They are part of an unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to the 1920s.

For nearly 70 years, sentinels from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," have been watching over the hallowed memorial and have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, since April 6, 1948.

Tomb guards are hand-picked and rigorously trained. The duty at the tomb is not for everyone, and the majority of soldiers who begin tomb guard training fail. It's not an easy job. According to the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, since 1959, only about 570 soldiers have been awarded the coveted Tomb Guard Identification Badge.

The mechanics of guard duty come naturally to very few. Trainers spend countless hours providing feedback and teaching the nuances of the sentinel's duty. A soldier has to be driven to endure the 24-hour long shifts and weather extremes. After enlisting, volunteering, and being selected for the Old Guard, soldiers can eventually try out for one of 27 sentinel positions. Less than 20 percent of soldiers typically make it.

While on duty, the sentinel crosses a 63-foot rubber-surfaced walkway. The soldier "walking the mat" does not wear rank insignia so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. As a gesture against intrusion on their post, the sentinel always bears his weapon away from the Tomb.

Only under exceptional circumstances may the guard speak or alter his silent, measured tour of duty. He will issue a warning if anyone attempts to enter the restricted area around the tomb but will first halt and bring his rifle to port arms.

Related: A Most Honorable American Duty

The guard wears the Army Dress Blue Uniform, reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800s. Tomb guards wear the Tomb Identification Badge on the right breast pocket. The design is an inverted, open laurel wreath surrounding a representation of the front elevation of the tomb. The words "Honor Guard" are engraved at the base of the badge. A guard leaving after at least nine months of service is entitled to wear the badge as a permanent part of the uniform, always knowing it is the only badge the Army could revoke, even after retirement, for any blemish of honor.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was constructed in 1921, after Congress approved the burial of an unidentified U.S. soldier from World War I, with other unknowns interred since. The unknown soldiers laid to rest at the tomb represent all missing and unknown service members who made the ultimate sacrifice — they not only gave their lives, but also their identities to protect our freedom.

Related: The Troops Who Support Our Troops

The monument itself that rests on top of the unknown grave is a sarcophagus. It's simple yet impressive in its dimensions. Its austere, flat-faced form is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic columns set onto the surface. Beneath the white marble tomb sarcophagus lies the body of an unidentified American soldier from World War I.

West of the sarcophagus beneath three marble slabs that lie flush with the plaza are crypts for the unidentified remains of an American soldier from World War II and the Korean War and the empty crypt that once held the unidentified remains of a serviceman from the Vietnam War.

The three figures of Valor, Victory, and Peace are sculpted into the panel, which faces Washington. On the plaza, the words "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God" are inscribed.

The three figures of Valor, Victory, and Peace are sculpted into the panel.

A must-see for the approximately four million people who visit Arlington National Cemetery each year is watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Most of these visitors marvel at the precision and discipline shown in the ceremony, but not everyone truly understands what it means to be a tomb guard.

Two Army veterans and former Tomb Guards want to change that. They created "The Unknowns," a documentary offering a behind-the-scenes look at the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ethan Morse, the documentary's producer (who guarded the tomb 2005-06), says that the documentary "aims to give viewers a deeper understanding of what it means to be a tomb guard and one of the members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, 'The Old Guard,' who serve at Arlington."

Morse and director Neal Schrodetzki were given unrestricted access to film, since they both served as tomb guards. "The Unknowns" covers portions of the training program and aims to replace myths with facts surrounding the monument dedicated to service members who died without their remains being identified.

After leaving the Army, Morse and Schrodetzki went to film school in Los Angeles. Then the Society of the Honor Guard reached out to the budding filmmakers to create a short memorial for one of its soldiers. "We always wanted to film the actual training," said Schrodetzki, who was a guard from 2006 to 2007. "We realized 'this is the time,' and it turned into a whole feature film."

Related: Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Healing for Generations

After securing $15,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, Morse and Schrodetzki flew to Washington for about three weeks in 2012 to film at the tomb. Incorporated into the documentary is footage of Morse's last walk as a Tomb Guard in 2006.

The documentary is a way to preserve the legacy and make a whole new generation aware of the rich history and honorable traditions of the brotherhood of sentinels who guard the tomb, as they learn what it means to protect our nation's patriots amid America's most hallowed grounds. I recently viewed this excellent documentary, and I highly recommend it to all. After watching the documentary "The Unknowns," I promise — you will feel a sense of pride and wipe a tear from your eye.

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. This OpsLens article is used by permission; it first appeared on LifeZette on July 2, 2017, and has been updated. 

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