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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

While November 11, Veteran’s Day, is a day set aside each year to honor those who have served our nation in one of the military services, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place set aside to honor those veterans who perished in their service during previous wars, but whose remains have never been identified. Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1863 on land previously owned by the grandson of George Washington and it was there that on March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier or marine from World War I (WWI). His remains were placed in a crypt within a tomb that sits atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. Thus, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in the plaza of the then-new Memorial Amphitheater which had been dedicated in May 1920.

 The monument symbolizes that no American who dies in battle is forgotten, and is a sobering testimony to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The first Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, considered the "symbolic and physical heart" of America, from his arrival in the United States until November 11, 1921 (Armistice Day) at 8:30am, when the flag-draped casket was removed from the rotunda and under a military escort moved to the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery for a formal burial ceremony, attended by Heads of State of countries allied with the United States during WW I.

Nearby there are three additional crypts, one of which contains the remains of an unknown from World War II (WWII), interred in June 1946 and another, the remains of an unknown from the Korean War, interred August 1956. Originally interred in May 28, 1984, the fourth crypt held the remains of an unknown from the Vietnam War, but he was later identified through advanced mitochondrial DNA techniques as an Air Force pilot, 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down over Vietnam, and whose remains were then reinterred in 1998 near his family at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. But, rather than adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, its cover has been replaced with one that bears the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” As a result of advances in the identification process through DNA, it is unlikely that there will be another “unknown.”

The white gold-veined marble Monument (sarcophagus) is itself a four-sided work of art. The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, although the actual carving was done by the renowned Piccirilli Brothers, also responsible for a number of other monuments. The East side of the sarcophagus bears three sculpted Greek mythological figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. At the corners and along the North and South sides are sculpted Greek Doric columns which relieve the flat-faced form of the monument, and each side bears three sculpted wreaths which represent the six major campaigns of WWI. Inscribed on the back or West side of the Tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known to God alone.”

The marble for the monument was originally obtained from the Yule Marble Quarry in Colorado and the four-tiered, 79-ton sarcophagus was placed on top of the original tomb and dedicated in 1932. But, since the late 1930s, cracks have been forming around the monument and despite repair attempts, are today nearly 48 feet long, spanning both sides of the structure with a third crack forming in the base. Over the years there have been ongoing emotional debates about replacing versus repairing the monument since some feel that replacing it would be a disservice to sculptor and architect and, since the original symbolizes the sacrifice of all soldiers, a replacement would ruin its historical significance. In the meantime, a room-sized block of marble cut from the same quarry as the original has been offered, free of charge, as a replacement but sits awaiting the decision of the government as to whether it is appropriate to just accept a donation without requiring bids. Our government at work!

As most of us know, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – also called the Tomb of the Unknowns (the Tomb has never been officially named) is guarded 24 hours a day, 365/366 days a year. The Tomb Guard Sentinels are an elite detail (Company E) from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) which is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, having served our nation since 1784. The mission of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, a major unit of the Military District of Washington, is to conduct memorial affairs to honor fallen comrades and ceremonies and special events to represent the U.S. Army, communicating its story to United States citizens and the world. But while the Old Guard’s duties are primarily ceremonial they must also meet certification standards for a combat role.

In order to volunteer for service as a member of the Sentinels of the Tomb, those considered to be the best of the elite, the soldier must have first become ceremonially qualified in the Old Guard, possess an unblemished military record, be in excellent physical condition, range in height from  5’ 10” to 6’ 4” and carry a proportionate weight. Once the applicant is accepted he or she will be assigned to Company E and begin a two-week trial period to determine their capability to train as a Tomb Guard. They must memorize seven pages of the history of Arlington National Cemetery which must be recited verbatim in order to earn a "walk."

Once the applicant passes the introductory phase, their "new-soldier" training begins, as the new sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of about 300 veterans. They will learn the manual of arms procedures that take place during the inspection portion of the Changing of the Guard and how to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition. First, they are tested in the manual of arms, uniform preparation, and the walks, and then the Badge Test is given. The sentinels will be tested to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge (TGIB) after serving for a period of time.

The test consists of 100 randomly selected questions that address the 300 items memorized during training on the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct to succeed and to earn the privilege of wearing the silver TGIB which depicts an upside-down, laurel-leaf wreath surrounding a depiction of the front face of the Tomb. Peace, Victory, and Valor are portrayed as Greek figures. The words "Honor Guard" are shown below the Tomb on the badge. The TGIB is a temporary award until the badge-holding sentinel has honorably served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for nine months. At that time, the award can be made a permanent badge, which may then be worn for the rest of their military career. .More than 600 have been awarded since its creation in the late 1950's (on average 10 per year). And while the TGIB can be revoked, the offense must be such that it discredits the Tomb of the Unknowns. Revocation is at the 3rd Infantry Regimental Commander’s discretion and can occur while on active duty or even when the Sentinel is a civilian. The TGIB is a full size award, worn on the right pocket of the uniform jacket, not a lapel pin.

Within the Guard there are three reliefs, each having one relief commander and about six sentinels. The three reliefs are divided by height so that those in each guard change ceremony look similar. The sentinels rotate walks every hour in the winter and at night, and every half-hour in the day during the summer. The Tomb Guard Quarters is staffed using a rotating Kelly system with each relief having the following schedule: the first day on, one day off, the second day on, one day off, the third day on, four days off. Then, their schedule repeats.

The “walk” on the black mat consists of 21 steps alluding to the 21 gun salute. The Sentinel does not execute an about-face, but rather stops on the 21st step, then turns to face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, and then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins. The sentinel’s gloves are moistened to improve the grip on the rifle.

This may be the time to dispel some rumors regarding the Sentinels. (1) They do not live under the steps of the amphitheater but rather come there to perform their duties. They may live either in a barracks on Ft. Myer or off base if they choose. (2) The Sentinels are not required to commit to serving for two years. The average tour at the Tomb is about 18 months, with no set time requirement. (3) It is a false rumor that they cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and if they are of legal age, they may drink except while on duty.

It is hard to imagine how one would feel if after they had paid the supreme sacrifice for their country they remained as “unknown,” and it is fortunate that now, with the scientific advances that have been made, that should no longer be the case. I am sure too, that they would be honored to know that even as an “unknown” they are being forever honored by a dedicated unit of the United States Army, the Sentinels of the Tomb.

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