Of course when we were at Arlington National Cemetery we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and witnessed the changing of the guard. It really is a beautiful display to see. While the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier used to only honor unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, it now houses the remains of soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The first Unknown Soldier was laid to rest on November 11, 1921 with President Harding officiating over the service.
All of the crypts at one time did contain bodies. Interestingly enough though, in 1998 it was discovered that the Vietnam Unknown was actually 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. After his body was exhumed and his identity was confirmed with DNA testing, his remains were given to his family for burial in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Today, the Vietnam crypt remains empty.
The marble sarcophagus that is part of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier has etched into its side: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” This got me thinking about how true that is for all of the graves in Arlington Cemetery. While names may be etched into the markers–we will never know what those people saw, what they did that we may live privileged lives.
Before seeing the changing of the guard for myself, I assumed it was just ceremonious–something for the tourists. I was wrong. The guarding of the tomb as well as the changing of the guard is taken very seriously. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I got yelled at. Everyone who was watching the guard strut back in forth in front of the tomb was being quiet. It was hot as hell fire outside; I was dripping sweat, so I whispered to Jeremy and asked him if he wanted some water. He nodded yes so I started going though my backpack to get us a bottle of water. The Guard stopped what he was doing, sharply faced me, moved his weapon so he was holding it with both hands, and demanded silence and respect. Fortunately, no one could see me blushing through my already very sweaty, flushed cheeks; unfortunately, there wasn’t a rock for me to crawl underneath and die. Though it was a complete accident, I was so embarrassed and ashamed of myself for not showing the proper respect.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is not only guarded during cemetery visiting hours, but 24 hours a day 365 days a week, no matter the weather. The march of the guard is done in a series of increments of 21’s. First, the Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat. Then, he turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns again and faces north for 21 seconds. Then the guard takes 21 steps down the mat again. A shoulder arms movement is done at each turn to ensure that the Tomb Guard’s weapon is always kept between the civilians and the tomb. 21 seconds and 21 steps were chosen to symbolize the 21 gun salute.
The Tomb Guards, all of which are volunteers, go through rigorous training and have to memorize many facts about the cemetery. In fact, they have to be able to recite verbatim seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. All of the sentinels are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Being a Tomb Guard is a very prestigious post if you are selected and can prove you are deserving to be there; and you do have to prove it.
Although, I wish I hadn’t gotten yelled at, the experience of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard was definitely something to see. I’m glad that Arlington National Cemetery takes it upon themselves to honor our fallen soldiers. May we never take their sacrifices for granted.