From atop one of the most sacred places in our country, a soldier walks his 21 steps, halts, turns to face our nation’s capital and pauses for 21 seconds.
As we close out this chapter of the year, I can’t help but reflect with gratitude on a recent event that the Veterans History Project (VHP) had the honor of being a part of: the Centennial Commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Anyone who has visited Arlington National Cemetery is likely familiar with the iconic white marble sarcophagus that watches over Washington, D.C. Millions of visitors each year come to observe the precision and ceremony of the changing of the guard, but who are these men and women who guard the tomb?
The first unknown was laid to eternal rest on November 11, 1921, three years after the Armistice. With over 100,000 Americans killed in support of the Great War, the unknown U.S. service member represented all who gave their last full measure of devotion in service to this country.
According to the Society of the Honor Guard, it didn’t take long for people to visit the cemetery, not only to pay their respects, but also to picnic at the picturesque location overlooking the Lincoln Memorial and beyond. For this reason, they posted a civilian guard during the cemetery’s open hours in 1925.
Since 1926, United States Army Tomb Guards from all walks of life have been handpicked, rigorously trained, have studied and stood watch. A coveted badge was created in the late 1950s, and since then only 688 sentinels have earned the third least-awarded qualification badge of the U.S. Army – the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. They have withstood some of the area’s harshest conditions to honor and secure what is now known as the three Unknowns: the original from World War I, the second from World War II, the third from the Korean War. The Unknown from Vietnam was identified through DNA testing in 1998, and his remains were returned to his family. The badge is not only difficult to earn, but can and has been revoked should the soldier disgrace himself or bring dishonor to the Tomb.
Acknowledging the heavy burden to bear the badge, I wondered who these individuals who have the rare privilege of serving as a Tomb Guards are. Thanks to the Society of the Honor Guard and their biennial reunion, we (VHP’s fabulous volunteers, including those from the National Court Reporters Association and the Women’s Military Memorial) had the opportunity to meet with and conduct oral histories with Tomb Guards who served from 1959 through present day to learn about what being a Tomb Guard means to those who “walked the mat.”
Everyday popular misconceptions about the Tomb Guards drift from the lips of tourists visiting the sacred site to the echo chambers of social media. When we asked each of our interviewees about these myths, they responded similarly about knowledge of the most popular rumors. Perhaps my favorite response was that of an active duty soldier who had previously served as a sentinel: “Of course there are those of us who drink, smoke and swear. We are soldiers.” Despite the strictly regimented protocol, those who guard the tomb are all vastly different individuals. Some were drafted to serve in Vietnam, others chose the military as they struggled with school and even the law.
As Larry Seaton, badge holder number 106 who served from December 1970 to November 1971 states: “You can’t put veterans in a box. Every veteran is entirely different in their life’s experiences, the branch they served in, the length of time and what they experienced. You have to keep an open mind and not have a preconceived notion of what a veteran is or is not.”
Seaton is a walking example of this. As a man who grew up in Southern California, he recalled being drafted and feeling sure he was going to Vietnam. To his surprise, he was sent to Washington, D.C. Upon seeing the Tomb Guards for the first time, he knew he was meant to be a sentinel. Training at night with the active guards, Seaton earned his place with the Tomb Guard’s 2nd Relief. He went on to serve as the Assistant Relief Commander, and performed the final one-hour guard walk to accommodate Arlington Cemetery’s tour bus on the new half-hour schedule. Since his time in service, Seaton has done construction management for the wine industry in Napa Valley (where he frequently set up wine tours for his fellow Honor Society Tomb Guards), climbed five of the world’s seven summits and regularly serves as a Black Rock Ranger for Burning Man.
That being said, the precision and dedication that the role of a Tomb Guard requires becomes a lifestyle rather than a job while serving. As the elite guards of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, better known as “The Old Guard,” these men and women not only protect those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but they also represent the U.S. military to those who come to watch the changing of the guard. For this reason, they spend hours preparing their impeccable uniforms, knowing the exact weight of the M-14 rifle and memorization of 17 pages of history, poems and facts. Confessing that the “young guys and gals” have it much harder than he did, Laurence “Skip” Nagle, Jr. served before the badges were earned from August 1959 to November 1960. Not knowing what to expect when assigned to the “Old Guard,” Nagle was slightly concerned when told,
This is the place where people spit-shine the soles of their shoes – not just their shoes, the soles!
Nagle had no problem with the training but did note his preference for walks at night, before the lights were installed at Arlington. Lit by the moon and the stars in the sky, Nagle was able to remove his preoccupation with perfection and reflect on the true reason he was there. It was at this time that he would think of the Blue and Gold Star families who came to visit, and the great responsibility he had to guard their son.
Contrary to some popular belief, Thomas Tudor, badge number 78, who served from February 1969 to May 1970, said he much preferred the walks in the snow or rain over the grueling summer humidity. If the heat wasn’t enough, summer also invited a few unwanted guests that tried Tudor’s resolve. On one occasion, it was a bumblebee on his face. Another was when a baby squirrel went up his pant leg inside his trousers. The last was a visitor who accidentally took an up-close photo of her own eye. Tudor maintained his composure during some of the longest 21 seconds of his life, as he knew he had a job to do. Trying times only made him more aware of a story that had been passed down from Tomb Guard to Tomb Guard: In the mid-sixties, a Tomb Guard just walked to the west end of the mat and heard faint weeping and footsteps approaching the chain behind him. At the time, the chain was much closer to the Tomb Guards, and so the woman was able to speak directly to the sentinel. With a slight quiver in her voice, the woman told the sentinel,
My son disappeared in France in 1944. This is the only place I have. God bless you, son, and thank you.
Tudor shares that it was at this moment that the sentinel knew the full measure of the place for all who have had the privilege of guarding.
The Sentinel’s Creed and Honor Guard’s motto is “Soldiers never die until they are forgotten. Tomb Guards never forget.” My hope is that the next time you visit Arlington National Cemetery and see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that you reflect on all that it encompasses. Watch the amazement in the children’s eyes. Look around at the faces of the veterans and family members. Realize that the sacred ground you are standing on represents more than the guard change, but rather the eternal service and sacrifice of all who have donned our nation’s uniform.
All oral histories collected during the 2021 Society of the Honor Guard Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reunion will be available in the future via our website at loc.gov/vets. In the meantime, check out more stories of service from those who “walked that mat” at https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/search?query=tomb+of+the+unknown