The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is one of the most heavily guarded sites in the whole world. Well-trained sentinels of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, watch the tomb 24/7 regardless of the weather: whether it is raining or even during hurricanes, and they take their job seriously.

Unknown Soldiers of War

On November 11, 1921, an unknown soldier was brought back from France after World War I. During that time, there were not enough technological advances yet, like dental records or DNA testing, to help the government identify this soldier and the other thousand unidentified ones. And so, the US government approved the construction of a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery as a final resting place for the unidentified soldiers that were brought back in the US. The unknown soldier from France was the first to be buried below that three-level marble tomb. At first, it was a stone slab that covered the rectangular opening. However, it was changed to Yule marble in 1931. There had been four bodies in the tomb, each from World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnamese War. However, the latter was identified in 1998 as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. His remains were sent home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. At the west panel of the tomb was an inscription:

HERE RESTS IN

HONORED GLORY

AN AMERICAN

SOLDIER

KNOWN BUT TO GOD

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. Brittany HoganCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb Guards

It is said that the badge of the sentinels guarding the tomb was one of the hardest to acquire, and serving as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns is considered one of the highest honors. As of 2020, there were only 688 of these badges issued, 23 of which were revoked, and 7 were “administrative errors.”

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge.

These sentinels follow a strict set of rules, including taking exactly 21 steps and facing the tomb for 21 seconds during their ‘walk’ by the Tomb of the Unknowns. As mentioned above, no weather is bad enough to stop them from carrying out their duty. As per their website, line eight of their Sentinel’s Creed refers to the “discomfort of the elements,” although they would not put the welfare of their soldiers at risk during weather conditions that could cause injury or death.

As winter storm Janus dumped several inches of snow on northern Virginia and Washington, DC, on Jan. 14, the Tomb Sentinels of the 3d US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) kept their watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photo by Staff Sgt. Ben K. Navratil

But why is the tomb needed to be heavily guarded? According to the Society of the Honor Guard’s website’s FAQ:

Has anyone ever tried to get past the Tomb guards or attempted to deface the Tomb?

Yes, that is the reason why we now guard the Tomb. We didn’t have guards back in the early 1920s, and the Tomb looked much different. It was flat at ground level without the 70-ton marble ‘cap.’ People often came to the cemetery in those days, and a few actually used the Tomb as a picnic area, likely because of the view. Soon after, in 1925, they posted a civilian guard. Then in 1926, a US Army soldier was posted during cemetery hours. On July 1, 1937, guard duty was expanded to the 24-hour watch. Since then, the ceremony has evolved throughout the years to what you see today. Today, most of the challenges faced by the Sentinels are tourists who are speaking too loudly or attempting to get a better picture (by entering the post).

But what will happen if you attempt to cross the barrier? This video will give us an idea.

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