The Old Guard at Arlington

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First published January 29, 2016

Thirty inches of snow this weekend. No matter. Winds gusting to fifty miles per hour. No matter. Temps in the mid-twenties. No matter. Those who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns are there, 24//7/365, since 1937.

They do have what is called the box where they can stand in the severest of weather. A cloth covered structure with an awning. But the front is open and subject to inclement weather coming in. There is no heat. It is the only time they can have their rifle by their side and the only time they are not marching.

The Old Guard is a name they’ve had for years, for the duty their unit has served in other places. This segment of that unit is the best known.

If you are not awestruck when you watch a changing of the Guard, then your patriotism has to be questioned. Precision to the nth degree, and a proudness that should not be contained. Any changing of the Guard always has some of the spectators weeping.

The honor of a twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor at a military funeral, is maintained in the Guard at the Tomb. A pace of twenty-one steps by the soldier in front of the Tomb. Then he stops and turns twice with a twenty-one second pause at the end of each turn, then the twenty-one steps begin again. The way they time that twenty-one seconds remains a mystery.

Their rifle is always shifted to the outside shoulder away from the Tomb to provide protection in case it is needed to defend the Tomb. There have been instances where there were some intruders, but none with serious intentions of causing a problem. Some just wondered over the restraining rope.

The rifles appear not to be loaded, because they are inspected by the soldier in charge at each changing of the Guard, and the gun shows an empty chamber. I would not however want to see how soon one of the Guard could load a bullet clip that I am sure is somewhere on them, although not visible.

The rest of the Guard lives below the Tomb and could be there to defend the Tomb at the slightest suggestion of being needed.

The type of weather D. C. has had dictates a two-hour shift. In the winter it is normally a one-hour shift, changing to thirty minutes in the warmer months for the benefit of the crowds who gather to watch the changing of the Guard.

The Guards must know all the well-known people who are buried at Arlington, and are morally bound for the rest of their lives to honor the position they have held.

If you attend a funeral at Arlington, some of the Honor Guard accompany the caisson, with the precision that is exercised at the Unknowns.

While you sit in your warm place tonight, remember those who guard our most important are there in whatever weather there is, for it is not the Unknowns at the Tomb they march for alone, it is for all of those who died defending this country. It is true they recognize some of those who are buried at Arlington, but they also know of thousands upon thousands who lie buried in other places. Some are buried in graves of regular cemeteries, some in the National Cemeteries scattered throughout the States, and some in the cemeteries overseas for those who were never brought home. Each and every one matter to the Guard.

You can tell it in their cadence, their uprightness, their never changing steeled facial expression, the sharp handling of their gun in the change of shoulders, just the very purpose they are there exhibited in each step.

Yes, think of the Old Guard now and then, and the Tomb of the Unknowns. That should tell you why we are still here, and why we are free to be who we are.

 

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