The Tomb Sentinel

Barbara Gilbert 

It was my second visit to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, the first being nearly twenty years earlier when my oldest son was a member of the 1st Battalion, Third U. S. Infantry (The Old Guard).  He was assigned to Presidential Honor Guard, and his duty station was the White House.  He was proud of his membership in that elite group and especially his company, which also included the young men who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the U.S. Army Drill Team.  He took me there, and I watched the complete tour of a tomb sentinel.  (They prefer being called sentinels, rather than guards.)  I have it all on 8mm film, which I rarely see.  On this visit, I had my new digital camera, and wanted still pictures to add to the chronicles of my extended stay in Washington, D. C.  I have cherished the memories of that first visit, remembering this mother's extreme pride in her son.

Tomb GuardToday was different.  I was alone on a sultry, nearly 100-degree day, with humidity to match.  The only sounds I heard were those of the buzzing locusts, and the call of an occasional bird.  From the parking lot, I approached the intersection of Eisenhower Drive and Roosevelt Avenue.  The long walkway is steep, and the effort was extreme for me.  The number of gravesites now has reached more than 270,000, and which includes the family members of America's honored warriors.  The sight of so many graves demands one's silence and reflection.  The cemetery is comprised of hills, trees, and lawns, and is immaculately groomed.  I pass a grave whose stone is topped with several small pebbles, placed there by visiting family members; one for each relative.  I passed the entrance to John F. Kennedy's gravesite, and continued to the entrance of the area that contains the tomb memorial.  There is a circular courtyard at that Roosevelt Avenue entrance, with simple beds of pink begonias and several benches offered to a weary walker under the shade of many large, heavily canopied trees.  I sat and rested for a few minutes, with a huge bumblebee as my only companion.

As I approached the ceremonial area where the three soldiers lay, a new guard was installed to begin his duty.  I climbed about half way up the stairs, and made my way back down to the center front.  There were few visitors, this being such a hot day.  I simply sat and watched this young solder, resplendent in Army Blues, march his assigned territory on the black rubber mat.  The only sound he made was when he clicked his heels sharply together at the beginning of his turn, and the sound of the presentation of his rifle at each end of the mat.  There were no sounds whatsoever from the visitors.  Each turn he made was as crisp and as sharp as the bayonet fixed to the end of his rifle.  His shoes are custom made, at his own expense, with very thick soles, in order to hold the large steel taps.  As he steps, his foot hits the mat with heels first, then rolls to the outside edge of his foot, and then rolling onto the ball of his foot.  This special gait is the gait of all the soldiers who drill in ceremony.  It provides a smooth grace reminiscent of a dancer, forcing his body to move in a perfectly straight line, with no vertical movement.  I think to myself that they must have very strong feet and ankles.  

The heat and humidity emanate from the white marble in waves.  It is hard to even breathe. There are brown lines, with wider spots interspersed along them, beside the mat.  I later realized that the lines are the tiny imbedded particles of the shoes that have performed this march tens of thousands of times.  Changing of the GuardThe wide spots mark the area where a turn is made, and one can map the ceremony of the changing of the guard by them.  Every soldier who has ever marched there leaves a bit of himself behind in the marble, to be forever as entombed as the honored heroes.  It is a right and fitting memorial to the young men who have served so eloquently.   You have to understand that the sentinel is there because of his pride in his service, and dedication to his duty and his duty is a difficult one.  Before he begins his watch, his fellow guards carefully dress him. His company and his audience rigidly scrutinize his appearance and demeanor.

The tomb is never left unguarded at any time, 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year.  These young men have to endure every extreme of nature that exists.  His only concentration is the focus of his watch.  His eyes never recognize anything but the job at hand.  Stand at one end of the mat for exactly 21 seconds. March 21 steps to the other end of the mat, click heels, turn 90 degrees, stand for 21 seconds, turn again, present the rifle, and stand again for 21 seconds. March 21 steps back to the other end of the mat.  Repeat the above over and over until the end of the watch.  It takes dedication to perform this honor for the dead that lie beside his mat, just in front of the memorial whose simple inscription reads, "Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But to God."

Only God may know the identity of the soldier, but the soldier on duty knows the soldier who is honored, for he is one of them.  That is why he is there.

Sentinel in the snowThe Sentinel's Creed:

My dedication to this sacred duty
Is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
Never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
My standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise
And the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence
To the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
His bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day,
Alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
This soldier will in honored glory rest
Under my eternal vigilance.

Barbara added this note when she sent the above article:

The Sentinel in the Snow is a photo that hangs in the Tomb Sentinel's Quarters under the stair of the stadium, and also in the Old Guard Museum.  He was my son's room-mate and I know his first name was Chuck, but have forgotten his last name.  He is deceased. 

At Christmastime, wreaths are donated by a businessman from Maine to decorate every grave at Arlington.

A factoid: You'll see at the end of my essay about my visit to the Tomb that I added the Sentinel's Creed.  Note the sixth line down, about their standard remaining perfection.  Any Old Guardsman is liable to tell anyone in uniform, whose uniform is not up to basic standards, "Line Six!" Rank doesn't matter and he's likely to explain to those who are unaware of its meaning.  Now you know where the admonishment comes from.



18 nov 2007