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Memorial Day: Tomb of the Unknowns

A  member of the Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
A member of the Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

There is no better place to understand the true meaning of Memorial Day than at Arlington National Cemetery, and specifically, at the Tomb of the Unknowns. This is one of the few places in America where "Memorial Day" does not automatically equal "barbecue" and "picnics," or worse: "mattress sale."

The boys and I were able to visit Arlington National Cemetery in April while Dustin was working at the Pentagon. (As an aside, there are spectacular views of the Pentagon and the rest of Washington, D.C., from Arlington National Cemetery.) I was a little nervous about bringing my youngest, Lindell, because he is seldom quiet or appropriate. But no one—not even a spotlight-loving 6-year-old—can help but feel the solemnity of the rolling green fields dotted with white headstones. They are perfectly spaced in neat rows that seem to ride on the hills like a wave.

It is almost impossible to take in.

For one of the first times in Lindell's life, he was speechless.

I've been a military dependent since the day I was born, but this was my first time to see Arlington National Cemetery, too. Like Lindell, I was moved to silence.

Because the cemetery is a major tourist destination, there are, of course, parts of the grounds that feel like most other attractions: people enter and exit beside the gift shop, lines form for well-timed trams that move visitors across the 624-acre cemetery, and a tour guide relays facts and information through an intercom on the tram. Yet once you get past these necessary trappings, which keep nearly 4 million yearly visitors moving through the grounds in an orderly fashion, there is silence.  And even farther away still, tucked between some of the 8000 trees—many of which, according to the cemetery's website, are more than 200 years old—there is the Tomb of the Unknowns. Here, there is near total silence.

The Tomb of the Unknowns, a white marble sarcophagus, is on a hill that overlooks most of the cemetery and Washington, D.C. Engraved in the marble is this: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." Directly beneath the sarcophagus lies the remains of an unidentified soldier from WWI who was buried there in 1921. Later, the remains of unidentified soldiers from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars were laid to rest at the Tomb as well.

Every day of the year, no matter the weather (yes, even during hurricanes), and for all hours of the day, a sentinel from Company E of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment guards the tomb. Despite this regiment already being prestigious (they escort the president), only a select few can volunteer for and be accepted as a Tomb Guard. A sentinel must:

  • Be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches tall
  • Be in impeccable health and physical condition
  • Have an perfect military record
  • Memorize and recite seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history
  • Know the exact location of nearly 300 veterans' graves
  • Get 95 percent or better on a rigorous exam of facts

Since 1958, only 400 individuals have met all of these requirements and been awarded the Tomb Guard Badge. If you go to see the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns, you will see at least three of these soldiers. In a hushed ceremony where you could hear a pin drop (even with a six-year-old by your side), one sentinel is relieved by another while a relief commander oversees them. The ceremony is precise yet fluid.

Once the new sentinel is in position, he begins his watch. This includes walking in an exact, 90 steps-per-minute cadence, marching 21 steps behind the Tomb, turning, facing east for 21 seconds, turning, facing north for 21 seconds, and then walking 21 steps to the other side. For decades this same path has been walked every hour of the day and night on a quiet hill in Arlington National Cemetery overlooking our capitol. The cement in front of the Tomb even has worn places where each careful step has been taken—never too far to one side or the other, but always in the exact step of the sentinel before.

Much like our Memorial Days are cluttered with sales and barbecues, Arlington National Cemetery is increasingly encroached upon by a modern, capitalistic world filled with gift shops, trinkets and a "me" attitude. But on that hill, no matter the weather or the time of day (even as you read this), someone is watching over the Tomb of the Unknowns.

They are walking 21 steps, turning, waiting, turning again and walking another 21 steps. They haven't forgotten.They never will. Every day is Memorial Day for them.

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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