Tomb of the Unknown Soldier–Not Quite a Century Old

I ran the library at Ft Myer, home of the Old Guard, 3rd US Infantry for over a decade. Many of those soldiers were library patrons so for me their stories are extended family lore. In honor of Memorial Day, some news outlets talked about the Honor Guard who have guarded the Tomb of the Unknowns. They say that the Tomb is now 100 years old. Not quite!

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it. For this and other facts about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, click here.

I left Ft Myer in 1997, when I thought that all of the Tomb Guard were still men. I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to learn that there are also female guard now.

How many Sentinels have been female?

There have been over 680 tomb guards awarded the badge since 1958 when we started counting. There are hundreds more from the year 1926 when the Army started guarding the Tomb. The 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) is the unit that has been given the duty of guarding the Tomb. It was given this sacred duty in 1948. The Old Guard was — and still is — considered a combat unit. As an Infantry unit, females were not permitted in the ranks for many years. It wasn’t until 1994 that females were permitted to volunteer to become a Sentinel when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard. The MP branch is a combat support unit and includes females.

In 1996, SGT Heather Johnson became the first female to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. However, SGT Johnson was not the only female Sentinel. Since then, there have been a total of five female Sentinels awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge:

SGT Danyell Wilson earned her badge in 1997
SSG Tonya Bell received hers in 1998
SGT Ruth Hanks earned her badge in June 2015
SFC Chelsea Porterfield earned her badge in 2021

Several other units have since been attached to the Old Guard — food service, transportation, medics, etc. — so now females have an ever greater opportunity to become a Sentinel. Females must meet the same requirements as the male soldiers to be eligible to volunteer at the Tomb. the only difference is that females have a minimum height of 5’8″ — which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard.

Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown

Veteran’s Day–Laying a Wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise
and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence
to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day,
alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest
under my eternal vigilance.
Simon 1971

 

Veteran’s Day was originally Armistice Day, signalling the end of World War I–the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  The British call it Remembrance Day, and mark it with a two minute silence at 11am to remember people who have died in the war.  The French celebrate it as Armistice Day.

“Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.”  –from the History.com

wreathlaying Arlington Cemeterypresident commemorates veterans day

One of the traditional American ceremonies (besides Veteran’s Day parades) is for a high-ranking U.S. official (often the President of the United States) to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

From the Arlington Cemetery website, “The gift of flowers at a memorial site is a ritual that occurs around the world, understood in every culture. The floral tributes at funerals bespeak both the beauty and the brevity of life and evoke memories of other days. These type of memorials are made each day at Arlington National Cemetery, at the dozens of funeral services occurring there and in solitary communion with a departed loved one. ”

“The most solemn of these occur on state occasions where the president or his designee lays a wreath to mark the national observance of Memorial Day, Veterans Day or some other special occasion. As a general rule, these take place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attended by ceremonial units from the uniformed services. ”

The Tomb is guarded by soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), headquartered at Ft Myer.  The guards are all volunteer.  The requirements are rigorous; the standards exacting.

 

guard at the tomb of the unknownsThe Tomb Guard

Serving at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Tomb) was a defining period in the lives of Tomb Guards. Although Tomb Guards come from every state in the United States of America (U.S.) and every walk of life, they are forever bonded through their shared experience of service at the Tomb. A strong bond was formed through an extremely demanding and humbling experience.

Tomb Guards are handpicked and rigorously trained. The duty at the Tomb is not for everyone, with the majority of soldiers who begin Tomb Guard training failing. Tomb Guards describe their service as a privilege and an honor, and are undeniably proud of their service. They are part of an unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to 1926. The ideals of the Tomb became the Guidepost for their lives, as well as a motivating factor and measuring stick for future endeavors.

The Sentinel’s Creed is the Tomb Guard standard. The 99 words of the creed capture the true meaning of their duty. You will often hear the words “Line-6” proudly uttered by Tomb Guards as they converse with each other or with their chain of command.

Veteran's Day--graveyard old guard

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to be one of four librarians from the Military Libraries Division of the Special Libraries Association to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in December.  We had to request permission almost a year in advance.  We were lucky enough to be given a time and a date.  The Sergeant of the Guard worked with us to make sure we did this with the appropriate dignity and ceremony.  Per custom, we provided the wreath and the people to carry the wreath down the steps to the tomb. (The group carrying the wreath is limited to a maximum of four people.)