Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Close your eyes and imagine the stars shining brightly in the clear evening sky.  It’s nightime and the moon glows softly, then ducks behind passing clouds.  The air is warm and smells of flowers – the smell of spring.  We take flight, soaring above treetops and towns, buildings and monuments, over a bustling city until we reach a very quiet hillside.  We touch down on soft, green grass.  All around us are white stones gleaming in the moonlight.  They are called tombstones.  We are in a cemetery.  But not a spooky Halloween cemetery.  We are in a very pretty, green cemetery.  Two US presidents are buried here (William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy), as well as astronauts, supreme court justices, and over 400,000 brave soldiers.  This place is called Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC in the United States.  Glance up the hill in front of you.  What do you see?  Do you see a large, square stone?  

Let’s go explore it!  

There is a soldier, all alone, walking back and forth in front of the large white stone.  It’s a female soldier!  She stands straight up and marches across a black mat.  She stops.  She clicks her heels together.  She turns to face the stone, waits, then turns and walks back to where she started.  Back and forth she goes, never stopping, or sitting down, or even scratching her nose!  But why?  What is she doing?

Let’s get a little closer, but be VERY quiet.  This is a special place and being quiet shows respect.  The stone that she is guarding is a tomb – that means a big grave marker that honors important people who are buried here.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers weighs 79 tons!  There’s engraving, or writing, on the back of the tomb that says:  “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”  That means we do not know the name of the soldier buried here; their identification tags were lost in the war.  

Each side of the tomb shows three wreaths.  These wreaths symbolize various battles during WWI.  On the front of the tomb are three Greek figures, a man holding a dove, a woman holding an olive branch, and a man holding a sword.  They signify peace, victory, and valor.  

But who is the guard and why is she here protecting this tomb?

Since 1926 there have been US Army guards protecting the tomb day and night, 24 hours a day, in sunshine and rain, snow, and wind – and even hurricanes!  The guards never stop guarding the tomb.  It is their sworn duty to protect the unknown soldiers who died for our country.  This is a way to honor their service.

The female guard is returning.  You count her steps.  21.  She stops.  You count the seconds.  21.  She turns towards the tomb, clicks her heels, and waits for 21 seconds.  Then she clicks her heels, turns, waits another 21 seconds, then walks 21 steps back to her starting point.  Why is everything 21?  

Well, have you ever heard of a 21-gun salute, where soldiers fire 21 shots into the air during special military events?  That is the military’s signal that someone very important has passed away.  It is a great honor to receive a 21-gun salute.  It is quite loud, though, so be sure to plug your ears!

The guard carries a rifle in one hand, leaning it upon her shoulder as she marches stiffly and precisely.  The rifle is used to guard the unknown soldiers and the tomb from any danger.  

Her gloves are slightly damp to make it easier to hold the rifle.  The guard certainly does not want to drop her gun during a storm or a hurricane!

She is dressed in a blue uniform with a white shirt, black tie, and gold buttons on her jacket.  A black cap is perched precisely on her head.  Her boots are black and shiny – and make a clicking sound. I can see little metal pieces on her soles – and a metal piece on the inside of her heel.  That is what makes the clicking sound when she clicks her heels together!  Their dress motto is: “My standard will remain perfection.”

The sun rises and people start arriving.  You hear a tour guide speak quietly to a group.  He states there used to be four soldiers buried under the tomb – one from each war:  WWI, WW II, Korea, and Vietnam; now there are three.  The soldier from the Vietnam War was identified in 1998 by DNA testing – a scientific test which identifies you by your unique genes and chromosomes.  The soldier, a US Air Force 1st Lieutenant, was returned to his family.  His tomb remains empty.

The guide states that the guards are changed, or go off duty, every 30 minutes during the summer, and every hour during the winter.  During the night, they are changed every two hours.  They do a ceremony called, “The Changing of the Guard.” It is very special ceremony, with marching, and clicking, and inspection of rifles and uniforms. 

But guarding the tomb is just one of their duties.  On their days off, they must polish their boots, clean their uniform, clean their rifle, do physical training, attend guard training, and cut their hair before their next shift.  That’s a lot of work!

Someone in the tour group raises their hand and asks how guards are selected.  The tour guide states there is a difficult application process for US Army soldiers.  Only the best of the best are selected to guard the tomb.  They are called Tomb Sentinels.  Most do not make it through to the end of the process.  It’s like trying to qualify for the Olympics – there are a lot of great athletes out there, but only the best make it to the Olympics.  And of the 1,000+ soldiers who have guarded the tomb, only 5 have been women.  

Why so few?  Well, in the past, women were not allowed to be in the military; they were thought to be too weak for war.  It was thought they couldn’t carry heavy backpacks or guns, or handle the stress of fighting.  But women have certainly proved them wrong!  Now they are soldiers, officers, sailors, pilots, radar operators, and even sentinels!  They love their country and want to protect it, just like men.

We are very lucky to see this female guard tonight – and to have these brave sentinels guarding our fallen heroes!

What do you think about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the guards who protect it?  Would you like to see this special place in Washington, DC, and view the Changing of the Guard ceremony?  Do you have someone in your family who served in the military? 

This tomb reminds me that we owe a big debt of gratitude to the soldiers who have protected our country and our freedom for hundreds of years.  They volunteered to join the military, to serve and protect, and to fight for the rights we have today.  Some never returned home, married, had children, or grew old.  That is the biggest sacrifice of all – giving up their life for us.  You can honor them by visiting military cemeteries and putting flags or flowers on their graves – or just saying “Thank you for your service” to a soldier you see on the street.  On holidays such as Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, you can attend an event in my town in honor of them.  What about you?  Will you do something to honor our fallen soldiers this Memorial Day?