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The Backstory: Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown

The air was still relatively cool at the early hour of 9am, but the sun beating down on the gathered crowd – intensified by all the white marble surrounding us – already felt like a heat lamp set on “roast.” Everyone was still and hushed, with the silence broken only by the clicking of polished shoes on stone, until – “Stay behind the barrier!” the armed solider barked at a tiny student, whose hand had strayed past the handrail.

The changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown may look like theater, but it’s deadly serious.

That morning sun was deadly serious, too. It turns out, if you put your iPhone in your backpack and then walk around in the full sun and 90+ degree heat for two hours, the phone will overheat and shut down. (Not unlike me.) But despite the heat and my smoldering iPhone, that day I was reminded what a beautiful, peaceful place Arlington is to visit, in any weather. Its solemnity is occasionally broken only by the sound of a distant twenty-one gun salute – and the admonishments of the Honor Guard keeping tourists in line at the Tomb of the Unknown.

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown is undoubtedly the most popular attraction at Arlington. But I find the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown even more fascinating. Since 1937, the Tomb has been guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather and all circumstances. The Honor Guards who protect the Tomb are carefully selected and exhaustively trained before they can make their public appearance at the Tomb, which is considered a privilege and an honor. While the cemetery is open, the Honor Guard members wear Dress Army Blues (in wool, no less!) and march in a strict pattern of 21 steps, punctuated by pauses of 21 seconds exactly. The bayonet rifle they carry is always on the shoulder closest to the watching crowd – aka, the nearest threat.

The first Unknown, a solider from World War I, was buried at Arlington in 1921 after lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda. Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War followed in 1958. Great pains were taken to make sure the soldiers were truly unidentified. But while more than 1,200 soldiers killed in WWI could not be identified and the remains of almost 88,000 WWII servicemen and more than 9,000 Korean War serviceman were unidentified or not recovered, only one solider from the Vietnam War was unidentified. About a decade after the Vietnam Unknown was buried at the Tomb, DNA testing revealed his identity, and he was subsequently moved to another resting place. Thanks to modern technology, it is unlikely that there will ever be another burial at the Tomb of the Unknown.

A sign at the entrance to Arlington reminds visitors that they are about to enter hallowed grounds, “our nation’s most sacred shrine.” It’s impossible not to feel the power of this place. And whatever happens out in the world, at the Tomb of the Unknown, the march of the soldiers goes on.

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