Trooper remembers guarding Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Shawnee resident Jeff Griffith is pictured in this 1979 photo during his tour as a sentinel for the Tomb Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery

Since 1937, stoic sentinels on guard have taken 21-steps across The Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery — with every ceremonial step to honor and protect those killed in the line of duty.

Shawnee resident Jeff Griffith is a former sentinel. He guarded the tomb in 1979 and 1980. Recently, he and his family joined other sentinels at a reunion of The Society of the Honor Guard, which is an association of guards, past and present.

Griffith said sentinels don’t seek or desire accolades for their service, rather it’s about the respect for the unknowns laid to rest.

“That was someone’s son who went to war and died,” he said. Honoring the unknown is “a tradition rich in the U.S. Army … that their country and Army has not forsaken them.”

“It follows the idea of combat — soldiers don’t leave fallen buddies behind,” Griffith added.

One of the inscriptions on the tomb reads, “Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But to God.”

There are currently three unknown in the tomb, representing World War I, World War II and Korea. The soldier from the Vietnam tomb was identified through DNA testing and that tomb is vacant.

Griffith graduated from Shawnee High School and joined the U.S. Army in 1977. As part of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he was selected for the U.S. Army Guard Company, part of The Old Guard’s 3rd Infantry. His first assignments included the Presidential Escort platoon and guard at Andrews Air Force Base. He was selected as a tomb guard.

More than four million people visit Arlington National Cemetery every year, many fascinated with watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown. It occurs every 30 minutes in the summer, every hour during the winter and every two hours during the time the cemetery is closed.

Griffith said the guards change more in the summer because the heavy Army blue uniforms, which press better, are wool — making it very hot. Sentinels work in rotational shifts, serving 24 hours on-duty, 48 hours off, he said, no matter what the weather.

Griffith, his wife Darlene and sons, Matt, 15, and Aaron 11, visited Washington, D.C., last month for the society’s reunion of tomb guards. Griffith shared the Washington, D.C., experience with his sons, and also met and became reacquainted with some fellow guards he worked with during his tour of duty.

The trip evoked many memories for Griffith as he remembers being a “19-to 20-year-old kid” while serving as a sentinel.

“It was a wonderful duty. I thoroughly loved the Army,” he said. “It’s a neat thing for a young guy from Shawnee.”

Sentinels strive for perfection in every step and take their duties very seriously, he said, staying focused despite what’s going on in the crowds watching the ceremonies.

Griffith said some of the most touching moments always occurred later in the evening when one or two people came to the tomb, many breaking down in tears.

When visitors show up, many believe the unknown soldier could be their loved one, he said, so all deserve the proper dignity. He described the atmosphere as being a lot like church.

Sentinels stand guard to keep anyone from defacing the tomb, and no one, not even the guards, is allowed to touch or step on the crypts.

“My whole time, I never touched that tomb,” he said.

Griffith believes every American should see Arlington National Cemetery. There’s always a steady stream of visitors, especially during the summer and on federal holidays involving wreath ceremonies.

Tuesday, Americans will remember the Dec. 7, 1941, anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an event that started World War II.

Many may reflect on the impact of war and remember the World War II unknown soldier.

“That’s somebody’s son who didn’t come home,” Griffith said.

After his duty in the U.S. Army, Griffith returned to Shawnee and has continued his career in public service. He was a patrol officer with the Shawnee Police Department and has been with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol for 23 years. Part of his duties in the patrol over the past year have included assignments involving Homeland Security.

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