On the plaza behind the Memorial Amphitheater lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It all started in 1921, with the Congressional approval of the burial of an unidentified serviceman from World War I. The remains were buried in a grave in the plaza; a white marble sarcophagus placed on top of the grave, with the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to honor the unknowns of World War II and Korea. In 1958, after a ceremony that included the President awarding both with the Medal of Honor, the remains were interred near their fellow serviceman from World War I. The markers for these fallen heroes are simple flat pieces of marble, with the inscription of merely dates: 1941-1945 for the WWII Unknown, and 1950-1953 for the Korean War Unknown.
A third unknown from the Vietnam War was buried in 1984. However, the body was exhumed, DNA tested and identified as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. The tomb representing the Vietnam War remains empty to this day.
Since 1937, the tomb has been guarded twenty four hours a day, seven days a week by the Tomb Guard sentinels, all members of the “Old Guard,” or the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
These men and women have to pass a battery of tests, both physical and academic, in order to qualify for this coveted voluntary position.
The discipline they exude is amazing. The tomb is guarded in great precision and honor. Each step and pause made is meaningful, twenty one steps, a twenty one second pause, then twenty one more steps. The number twenty one is significant because it symbolizes the highest military honor: a twenty one gun salute.
No matter the weather, whether a blizzard, thunderstorm, or blazing heat, the sentinel will be there. They actually consider it more of an honor to serve in this capacity while withstanding hardship. In fact, during the terrorist attacks of September 11, they did not falter, but called for additional help to guard the tombs.
Visitors to Washington, D.C. should put Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on their list. It’s a wonderful way to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed everything for our freedom.