Lonely sentinel — night at the Tomb

WASHINGTON (Army News Service)–It's quiet here now. No tourists or teenagers. No weeping veterans or weeping babies. Just the lone sentinel and the four unknown patriots he has sworn to protect.

Five hours ago, a warning was issued by Pfc. Paul E. Olson to all within earshot. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention one more time please. As of 7 p.m. Arlington Cemetery is closed to the public. The Tomb of the Unknowns is now a restricted military post. …”

After receiving the warning, the few people left after the last guard change began to slowly mill away, some waiting until the final second Olson left his post. After a few minutes, the only person left was the sentinel.

According to Staff Sgt. Johnny Jones, assistant sergeant of the guard, the next 13 hours, from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m., are known as “the hours of challenge” at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The cemetery is restricted to all personnel. No one comes in. No one goes out. First relief has completed just over half of their 24-hour shift, and they 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 just 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 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.

This evening is a cool one compared to others this week. 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 about seven minutes, now takes about 43 minutes. It is odd to watch the normally succinct, precise ceremony repeated over and over to correct mistakes. After the cemetery closes is the only time sentinels have a chance to “rehearse” while on post, so every minute counts. 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.

“Back it up sergeant, and try it again.”

“That was good, but lean back on your heels more.”

“Make sure you keep the same tone all the way through.”

Jones breaks each of the soldiers down and builds him back up. Just after the 9 p.m. change, he brings the bulk of the new sentinels up and takes them through the sequence. “I can't help it. I'm addicted,” Jones said. 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 orange, cumulous clouds slowly move toward the Tomb. Rain is imminent.

Midnight. A lone sentinel guards the area known as Post One.

It's one week later, and the sentinels of first relief are steady at their post. It is well into the hour, and Pfc. Brian Kanoa, 19, is practicing “The Walk” across the mat in front of the four unknowns. This night picks up where the last one left off. Again the trees rustle with the winds of an oncoming rain.

The wind is a godsend after the 92-degree day registered in the nation's capital. And just before Kanoa leaves his post 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,” Konoa says.

At night, the post is more like a regular guard post. The sentinels are allowed to leave the mat and explore suspicious areas as necessary, Jones said. “Halt! Who goes there? Advanced to be recognized.”

Sgt. Douglas Barroga, assistant commander of first relief, said he has been on post at every hour imaginable. 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 everyone from college kids 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 sentinel has a way of handling the situation. According to Spc. Jacob Eckhart, a 22-month veteran at the Tomb, one call will have the cavalry coming in no time. 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 guys 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. The shoes are polished to a high gloss, and the uniforms are pressed on the steam press in the catacombs, the basement of the quarters.

Some of the troops even have a chance to 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, but for a little bit of rain, have a pretty uneventful night. Olson summed up the vigil this way: “During the day [the guard change] is a visual thing bringing honor to the unknowns… but at night, with no one around, you just have to know that nothing will happen on your watch. No matter what time of year, the Tomb will be guarded with honor.

It's up to us to preserve that honor and build on it.”

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