If you've never been there, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of Arlington's most well known memorials, includes the remains of unknown service members from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) have the most prestigious job of keeping a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year vigil at the Tomb.
The guard on duty does his job with extreme precision and respect. His movements are all choreographed based on a counting system of 21. He walks down the mat 21 steps and turns. He pauses for a count of 21. Then he walks back the other way, stopping after 21 steps and turns. This continues for his entire shift, until the next guard appears for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. The system of 21 is based on the idea that 21 refers to the greatest honor that is given to heroes, similar to a 21 gun salute. I found myself counting to see if he'd always get it right. He did. And so did the next guy.
On the day we were there, a group of elderly veterans was gathered to watch the ceremony. I found myself wondering about some of the things they may have seen and experienced back in their war days.
The Guard is changed with another elaborate ritual every hour (or every half hour from April 1 through September 30). This procedure begins with a careful uniform inspection of the incoming guard, along with various marching, turning, positioning, and rifle commands and maneuvers - right shoulder arms, left shoulder arms, present arms, port arms, and order arms.
Here we watched the uniform inspection.
The Guard has been changed. We have a new soldier. Walk 21, turn. Count 21. Walk 21. Turn. Repeat. There can be no lapse of concentration or precision.
After the Changing of the Guard, there were two ceremonies in which new wreaths were brought for placement on the Tomb. Family members and veterans were escorted to the Tomb by the Guards, the wreath was hung on a stand, and then a bugler played a solemn and moving "Taps." Finally, the Guard removed the wreath from the stand and with great precision carried it to and laid it near the Tomb.
|Wreath ceremony with bugler|
All the wreaths are placed on the front side of the Tomb.
The ceremony concluded, and the single Guard resumed guarding. The crowd dispersed and we walked around the back of the area, to where a large amphitheater is located. Numerous presidents have spoken here, and there is seating for several thousand people.
As I lingered there in the amphitheater, I recalled having a lump in my throat as I listened to that lone bugler play those 24 lingering notes of "Taps." I experienced a great sense of pride at how these guards are spending their lives honoring those fallen soldiers. But then, over it all, I felt a deep sadness, at the overwhelming loss of life throughout so many wars.
May we never forget the many sacrifices that so many families have made so that we may have the freedoms we do. I have been reminded at this place to be ever grateful. And I am.
Next: Arlington House
The Robert E. Lee Memorial