For over 80 years, an elite group of men and women of the United States Army have guarded the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Their commitment and dedication to this service is nothing short of awe inspiring. These sentinels, members of the Third United States Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Old Guard” give up two years of their lives out of respect for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy everything that makes our Country as good as it is.
Only 20% of those who volunteer for this duty are chosen, and when they are picked, the requirements of their 2 year commitment are staggering. They live in a barracks, underneath the tomb, they must swear an oath that they will never drink alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. They can never curse in public for the rest of their lives and they can never disgrace the uniform or the Tomb in any way. During their first 6 months, these soldiers cannot watch television or talk to anyone. They are required to spend their off duty time studying and memorizing everything about the 175 most notable souls who rest at Arlington.
Visitors to the Tomb are also witnesses to a ceremony, known as the changing of the guard, something which goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is a sight which brings a tightness to your chest as you realize just how solemn this ritual is. The sentinels take nearly 6 hours a day to prepare for their assignment. Uniforms are spotless, buttons, buckles and shoes are polished with mirror like results. All insignias indicating rank are removed, as no one who guards the fallen may outrank them. Everything they do, and every movement has a special significance. The guards take exactly 21 steps as they walk across the tomb, and, when they hesitate, before doing an about face, it lasts 21 seconds. Each of these is meant to represent a 21 gun salute.
When they finally finish their 2 years, they are awarded a medal in the shape of a laurel wreath. To date, only 400 of these medals have been issued. If there is any doubt as to just how proud these men and women are about this work, just how much respect they have for those who have gone before them, there is a story about a particular set of circumstances which more than delivers the message. In 2003, as Hurricane Isabel was approaching, the sentinels were given permission to suspend their assignment in order to avoid the dangers from the storm. Each and every one of them politely refused the offer. One soldier, when asked about their decision, responded, “I’ve got buddies getting shot at in Iraq who would kick my butt if word got to them that we let them down. I sure as hell have no intention of spending my Army career being known as the damned idiot who couldn’t stand a little light breeze and shirked his duty.”
The Sentinel’s Creed
My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
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.
For these men and women, every day is Memorial Day.