Standing Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Spite of Hurricane Sandy

by M-Gillies

Soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment's The Old Guard, guard The Tomb of the Unknowns, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through all types of weather.

It’s being called Frankenstorm, a freakish environmental monster of high winds, drenching rains, extreme tides, flooding and possibly snow. It’s the amalgamation of hurricane Sandy − a late summer hurricane from the tropics, moving north from the East Coast − combined with the high pressure ridge of air centred around Greenland steering it west toward land; stitching together a wintry cold front traveling from the west, with a blast of Arctic air from the north, and a full moon threatening driving high tides to create a devastating monstrous storm of 12 inches of rain, 2 feet of snow and winds of up to 90 miles per hour.

Forecasters agree, this ominous storm is expected to have paralyzing effects on upwards to 60 million Americans in the eastern third of the nation. With widespread power failures, a halt in transportation systems, extensive evacuations and severe flooding, the powerful storm has been picking up speed over water  is threatening  the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, prompting evacuation orders for many of the residences.

While the New York City region could be facing the worst of Hurricane Sandy, forcing the shutdown of financial markets and mass transit, and sending coastal residents fleeing, there is one state which sees one group of individuals vigilantly standing their ground. They are known as elite soldiers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment’s The Old Guard. They are Tomb Sentinels in The Arlington National Cemetery, who, regardless of the weather guard the Tomb of the Unknowns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Since April 6, 1948, Tomb Sentinels have been guarding the final resting place of unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. While originally watch was conducted by a civilian watchman, it was on March 24, 1926, when a military guard from the Washington Provisional Brigade was established during the day-light hours. However, by 1948, the 3rd US Infantry known as The Old Guard soon assumed the post following the units reactivations in the nations capital.

With 895 active members, soldiers seeking the honor of serving as a Sentinel at the Tomb are required to possess exemplary qualities, including a spotless record and impeccable military bearing. Through this high honor, fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those, only a small fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards.

In what is known as walking the mat, guards follow a meticulous routine while watching over the graves which sees the soldier walk 21 steps (an allusion to the twenty-one gun salute) across the tomb with their weapons always shouldered opposite the Tomb. Upon reaching the twenty-first step, the soldier will turn to face the Tomb for 21 seconds before turning to face the other way, while switching their weapon onto the outside shoulder. After 21 seconds has passed, the soldier will repeat the first step, continuing this routine until the soldier is relieved of duty during the Changing of the Guard.

As part of the ritual, Sentinels walking the mat do not wear any rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns. During the day in the summer months, from April 1 to September 20, guard change every half hour, while during winter months, from October 1 to March 21, guards change every hour.

Regardless of rain or shine, these soldiers pride themselves on not letting bad weather interfere with their post, even in the presence of severe storms, such as 2003′s Hurricane Isabel, the blizzards in 2009-2010 (which had shut down the Washington D.C. area for days) and August 27, 2011′s Hurricane Irene − and in spite of Hurricane Sandy looming over the horizon, there are no exceptions.

According to the Society of The Old Guard’s website, Tomb Sentinels are, “Completely dedicated to their duty of guarding the Tomb. Because of that dedication, the weather does not bother them. In fact, they consider it an honor to stand their watch (we call it “walking the mat”), regardless of the weather. It gets cold, it gets hot − but the Sentinels never budge. And they never allow any feeling of cold or heat to be seen by anyone.”

However, this doesn’t mean that safety contingencies will not be implemented to ensure the safety of Tomb Guards. Despite their commitment, the welfare of the soldier is never put at risk and if weather conditions ever place the soldiers at risk of injury or death, Sentinels can still maintain the Tomb Guard responsibilities will shielded from the threat of safety in order to ensure mission accomplishment.

In recognition to the Tomb Sentinels of the 3rd Infantry of The Old Guards, wishes for the well-being of the loyal soldiers bestowed the honor of guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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