As the winds from Hurricane Isabel swept over Arlington National Cemetery, the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns were given — for the first time in history — permission to abandon their posts and seek shelter. “They told us that. But that’s not what’s going to happen,” said Sgt. Christopher Holmes, standing vigil on overnight duty. “That’s never an option for us. It went in one ear and right out the other.”
THE MONUMENT was established in 1921 with the interment of an unknown World War I soldier. A sentry has been posted there continuously since 1930.
With the fierce storm bearing down Thursday night, cemetery officials decided to let the guards move indoors if they felt they were in danger. Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler said he believed it was the first time they have been allowed to do so.
“We certainly didn’t want to put these guards in jeopardy unnecessarily,” Metzler said.
The tomb is protected by soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Usually about a half-dozen are there, taking turns standing guard, and security cameras also are used.
Holmes’ group was on duty for 24 hours, from 6 a.m. Thursday until 6 a.m. Friday. They took turns patrolling the tomb in hourly shifts.
InsertArt(2018932)The tomb consists of four graves. Three contain remains of soldiers who died in World War I, World War II and Korea. The fourth, representing unknown soldiers who died in Vietnam, now stands empty; the remains it used to hold were identified about five years ago using DNA technology.
Staff Sgt. Alfred Lanier, also on duty Thursday night, said guards might move inside if the storm became truly life-threatening. But he didn’t think it was likely.
“Once you become a badgeholder, it’s like you’ll do whatever you have to do to guard the unknowns,” Lanier said. “For one, it’s my job. And for two, that’s just how much respect I myself have for the unknowns. That’s just something we cherish.”
The sentries were not entirely unprotected in the storm; they wore rain gear and could warm up with coffee or hot chocolate when not standing guard.
Holmes said he was willing to risk his life keeping watch over the tomb.
“It’s just considered to be the greatest honor to go out there and guard,” Holmes said. “It’s not only the unknowns. It’s a symbol that represents everyone who’s fought and died for our country.”
The cemetery is the resting place of more than 260,000 people. Twenty-one funerals were held there Thursday, and 16 were scheduled Friday.
Another famous symbol at the cemetery, the “eternal flame” over President John F. Kennedy’s grave, was left on its own through the storm. The natural gas-powered flame can sputter out in heavy wind or rain, but is designed to immediately reignite itself.
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