Story by Corey A. Ealons
All is quiet in Arlington Cemetery. There are no tourists, no weeping veterans or crying babies, only the lone sentinel and the four unknown patriots the soldier has sworn to protect.
Earlier, at 7 p.m., Specialist Paul E. Olson had announced the cemetery's closing, declaring that “the Tomb of the Unknowns is now a restricted military post.”
According to Staff Sergeant Johnny Jones, assistant sergeant of the guard, the hours from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. are known as “the hours of challenge.” The cemetery is closed to the public. No one comes in. No one goes out.
First relief has completed just over half of its 24-hour shift, and the soldiers are determined that nothing will happen to dishonor the Tomb on their watch.
“We're doing this for the unknowns,” Olson said. “This is not a show. Everything we do is for them.”
The time after the cemetery closes is the time when the soldiers have a chance to catch their breath, Jones said. “It gets kind of hectic down here at the guard house during the day, with the phone constantly ringing, wreaths being delivered and people coming in and out. This is our time to relax and ease up a bit,” he said.
The early-evening wind is thick with the smell of oncoming rain. As the shadows begin to settle over the cemetery, Jones goes up to the plaza area to observe the 8 p.m. guard change. Now that the cemetery is closed, the guard rotations are extended from 30 minutes to an hour.
The guard change, which usually averages between seven and eight minutes, now takes about 43 minutes. It is odd to watch the normally precise ceremony repeated over and over to correct mistakes. Each step is timed tightly and every move is known before it is made.
Jones said this time is very valuable to the soldiers because they don't have many opportunities to train on post before they enter the guard rotation.
As the soldiers perfect their technique, they are unaware of the light show taking place in the clouds just on the other side of the Memorial Amphitheater. The mountainous cumulus clouds slowly move toward the Tomb. Rain is imminent.
Midnight. The lone sentinel is still guarding the area known as Post One. The sentinels of first relief are steady at their posts. It is well into the hour, and Private First Class Brian Kanoa is practicing “The Walk” across the mat in front of the four unknowns.
Just before Kanoa is relieved at 1 a.m., the skies open up and the rain comes crashing down. It arrives with a hearty helping of thunder and lightning on the side. Through it all, the change takes place precisely at 1 a.m., with the relief commander and sentinels executing a “post one” — an abbreviated version of the elaborate daytime ceremony.
“Post and orders remain as directed. The hours of challenge are still in effect,” Kanoa said.
At night, the post is more like a regular guard post. The sentinels are allowed to leave the mat and explore suspicious areas if it becomes necessary, Jones said.
Sgt. Douglas Barroga, assistant commander of first relief, said he has been on post at every hour. His time in the “dark” is usually uneventful, but there are the times when someone will creep into the grounds, he said.
“I always look in the shadows because that's where people hide out,” he explained.
During his time on post, he has had to chase away college students and service members of all ranks.
“They usually don't realize that the cemetery is closed. They just want to come up and pay their respects,” Barroga said. “We make a note of who they are, log it, and escort them out of the cemetery.”
However, if the intruder becomes belligerent, the “lone” sentinel has several ways of communicating with the other soldiers in the quarters, including a direct line from the guard box on post to the soldiers downstairs. Military police, U.S. Park Police and, of course, the other sentinels on duty can be summoned at a moment's notice.
Barroga said time at the Tomb can also be a time for reflection. “You do a lot of thinking,” he said. “A lot goes through your mind. It's a very quiet and peaceful place.”
Olson agreed. “D.C. is only three miles away, but the Tomb seems like the quietest spot in the world,” he said. This fact alone offers another challenge for the Tomb sentinel.
According to Jones, the soldiers have to shift focus as the sun goes down. “If a noise happened to the right during the day, they would have to maintain discipline. But at night, any little noise they hear they have to address,” he said.
Meanwhile, down below in the Tomb quarters, most of the sentinels spend the wee hours performing what could be known as the four Ps: protecting the Tomb, pressing their blues, polishing their shoes, and prepping for the next shift.
Each of the training weapons is broken down and thoroughly inspected. The huge mirrors used for practice and preparation are cleaned to a high luster. Shoes are polished to a high gloss, and uniforms are pressed in the “catacombs,” the basement of the quarters.
Some of the troops even squeeze in some sleep. Not much, however, as the quarters have to be put together for the oncoming relief by 5:30 a.m.
The sentinels of first relief have had an uneventful night. Olson summed up the vigil this way: “During the day the guard change is a visual thing … but at night, when there is no one around, you just have to know that nothing will happen on your watch.”
Rain, sleet or shine, Memorial Day or any day, the Tomb will be guarded with honor, said Olson.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard