Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns

In glossy black shoes, Army Specialist Bruce Bryant walks 21 precise steps, turns crisply and faces the white marble Tomb of the Unknowns for 21 seconds, then turns sharply again and repeats the walk. Each turn is underscored by the click of his steel-capped heels.
The solemn vigil at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, never ceases. Around the clock, under blistering skies and through bone-numbing blizzards, Bryant and other sentinels guard the graves and memories of American soldiers whose identities are “known but to God.” Volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, or “Old Guard,” have carried on the sacred duty since April 6, 1948.

“It makes you feel really good, really humble,” says Bryant, 19, of Columbus, Georgia, one of 34 sentinels and 12 in training who guard the tomb. His father, Nathaniel Bryant Sr., is retired from the Army and his brother, Staff Sergeant Nathaniel Bryant Jr., 26, is serving in Iraq. As he walks past the graves of men who lost even their identities in war, Bryant shows no emotion—and sometimes that’s tough.

“One day an old World War II veteran in a wheelchair was on the south end [of the tomb]. He fought to get out of his chair to stand and salute and hold it for 21 seconds,” Bryant recalls. “He was a veteran three or four times my age. He was crying.”

Seeing such love for “the guys who stepped up to the challenge and paid the ultimate sacrifice” touches his own heart and fills him with purpose and duty.

“This is one of the most prestigious jobs in the military,” Bryant says.

Select soldiers

The coveted silver badge worn by the sentinels is “the least awarded decoration in the military,” says Sergeant First Class Richard Schuck, who supervises the guards based at Fort Myer in Arlington. Since 1958, only 538 members of the Old Guard—the nation’s oldest active-duty Army unit—have received the badge; others who served before permanent badges were issued received them in June.

“There’s a lot of work and commitment, and it’s not for some people,” Schuck says. The elite soldiers volunteer for duty, but fewer than half are selected to guard the tomb after up to nine months of training.

First, members of the Old Guard—both male and female—must meet weight and height requirements, including being between 5-foot, 10-inches and 6-foot, 6-inches tall. Sentinels also must pass rigorous performance and knowledge tests, including reciting verbatim eight pages about their mission and tomb history, memorizing the locations of more than 300 graves of noteworthy soldiers buried at Arlington, and perfecting all weapon inspection, walking and ceremonial duties.

“Basically, I had no life other than this place,” says Sergeant Roy May, 25, recalling his training in 2002. “It’s a totally different universe.”

Now, the 6-foot-5-inch soldier from Spring, Texas (pop. 36,385), conducts the changing of the guard ceremony, in which one sentinel relieves another of his duty. In the winter, guards rotate every hour, and in the summer, every 30 minutes, so more spectators can witness the ceremony.

During the ceremony, May walks onto the plaza where the tomb is located and with elaborate precision inspects the M-14 rifle of the sentinel coming on duty. After all three soldiers salute the tomb, May releases the other guard from his post. “Pass on your orders,” May instructs.

During each walk, a sentinel keeps his rifle on the shoulder nearest the crowd to signify that he stands between the tomb and any threat. The 21 steps taken by the guard symbolize the highest military honor—a 21-gun salute.

“Our job never changes. It’s a constant vigil over the Unknowns,” May says. “It’s exciting when the president, our commander-in-chief, comes here, but we don’t change what we do.”

May saw the Tomb of the Unknowns for the first time when he was 17 and standing beside his father, Roy May Sr., a Vietnam War veteran. He felt a surge of pride as he watched the sentinels. “It was precision quality and performance,” he says.

Five years later, he made that precise walk for the first time at 4:15 a.m. one freezing February day. “I remember stepping on the mat and feeling, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. It’s my job to uphold this standard.’”

Sentinels work 24-hour shifts and devote off hours to preparing their uniforms and training for duty. May shines his shoes for up to eight hours, uses an industrial press to iron his dress blue uniform, and polishes all brass buttons, buckles and medals. He also rehearses his walk and maneuvers in front of a mirror.

“You rock back on your heels and kick your hips back and roll your rear under so that the gold stripes on the side of your pants are perpendicular to the ground,” May says. “You glide.”

Most sentinels serve two years or less because the job is physically demanding, says Schuck, who takes pride in watching soldiers transform from insecure trainees into confident, polished guards.

Honorable guard

Guarding the tomb shapes the rest of your life, says Jim Cardamon, 70, who served as a sentinel in 1958. “As a young kid that was the first goal I remember setting in my mind—and accomplishing.”

Cardamon, a retired banker in Hermitage, Pennsylvania (pop. 16,157), is president of the Society of the Honor Guard, a brotherhood of past and present sentinels organized in 1998. Society members hold reunions and visit classrooms to share their experiences.

“So many memories,” Cardamon says. “I was on post when Queen Elizabeth was there. I was close to the president (Eisenhower) so many times.” Spectators then could approach the guards, and he remembers three nuns passing by and one leaning over and whispering, “God bless you, son, for what you’re doing.”

Cardamon still keeps his 47-year-old shoes shined to a high gloss and stored in a felt bag. He wears them with pride on patriotic holidays.

George Koch, 85, of Frederick, Pennsylvanioa (pop. 4,795), may be the oldest living sentinel. “It was an honor that did not go to many men,” says Koch, who guarded the tomb in 1941 as a member of the Army’s 3rd Cavalry.

Koch, who walked the 21 steps clad in his britches, boots and spurs, still marvels that he was given the cherished duty. “I was so grateful—the son of an immigrant—to be able to be there.”

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