Unknown Heroes Guarding Arlington’s Most Famous Tomb

Monday, November 12, 2001
Courtesy of the Washington Post

All day — every day — on a hill overlooking Washington, a lone soldier walks 21 steps in a ruler-straight line, clicks his heels, turns and pauses exactly 21 seconds before turning once more and walking 21 steps back.

The soldier is a sentinel — or guard — in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

What is the Tomb of the Unknowns? It’s the final resting place for three American soldiers killed in battle: one from World War I, one from World War II and one from the Korean War. After the confusion and horror of combat, none could be identified. No one knows who they are. But even soldiers who lay in unmarked graves need to be honored, and that’s what the Tomb of the Unknowns is for. The soldiers buried there symbolize all the U.S. soldiers who gave their lives for this country.

The inscription at the tomb reads “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.” A sign in front reads “Silence and Respect.”

The changing of the guard is one of Washington’s most moving ceremonies. As a clock strikes the hour, a soldier comes out. He escorts the new sentinel in, inspects his weapon and accompanies the old sentinel out. The tomb is never left unguarded, not even for a moment, regardless of the time or the weather. The soldiers wear sharply pressed blue pants, black coats and white gloves. Their shoes are polished so brightly that the sun glares off their toes.

The 21 steps the sentinel takes — and the 21-second pause — symbolize the military’s highest honor: the 21-gun salute.

There may never be anymore unknown soldiers. New methods of testing genetic material have made it possible to identify just about anyone. A soldier from the Vietnam War was buried there in 1984, but in 1998 genetic testing was able to identify him, and he was moved to a cemetery near his family in St. Louis, Missouri.

The sentinels who guard the Tomb are part of the Old Guard, about 1,200 men and women in the Army’s 3rd Infantry based at Fort Myer. It’s not easy becoming a tomb guard. Applicants have to memorize seven pages of history on the cemetery and learn where 300 famous veterans are buried. And they can’t be shorter than 5 feet 10 or taller than 6 feet 4.

Being able to guard the tomb is the reason Specialist Thomas J. Buttner joined the 3rd Infantry. He takes his responsibility seriously. Said Buttner, “It seemed like the best thing I can do with myself.”

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