By Jon Dougherty
If you’ve never seen the “Changing of the Guard” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D.C. (I have), you may never fully appreciate this story. But hopefully, after reading this and, perhaps, doing a little online research about the long-practiced ceremonial process, you’ll get a better understanding of just how significant an event it really is.
Especially when you understand that it must take place in all kinds of whether, even torrential downpours.
The soldiers who perform this daily ritual are members of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is better known as the “Old Guard.” They are ones planting flags at each gravesite in Arlington every Memorial Day.
On Thursday, a massive rainstorm hit Washington, D.C., just as Old Guard troops deployed to perform their flag-planting duties.
It was during this storm that “one of the most extraordinary displays of discipline and dedication to duty ever to be witnessed at Arlington National Cemetery was taking place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” the Old Guard’s Facebook page said in a post.
“With only a few watching from cover, a Tomb Sentinel approached the Unknowns with U.S. flags in hand. As thunder shook the ground and rains washed down without abandon, the Tomb Sentinel pierced through the elements with breath-taking precision.
“He knelt and placed the flags in honor of the Unknowns. For the select few who saw this moment, it was jaw-dropping. Humans have their limits, but The Old Guard has yet to meet theirs.”
A comment to the post identified the sentinel as Tyler McKee, according to WTHR-TV.
It should be noted that thousands of homes in the D.C. area lost power in the storm which also knocked down a significant number of trees, WUSA-TV reported.
And yet…this troop continued to do his duty with the utmost respect, honor, and discipline shown to those who have come before him and given their lives in defense of this great nation.
Here’s the Facebook post:
“Twenty-one steps south. Face east 21 seconds. Face north 21 seconds. Twenty-one steps north. Face east 21 seconds. Face south 21 seconds. Repeat until relieved.” That is the duty. That is the process.
The guards are changed every hour, on the hour, from October 1 to March 31. From April 1 through September 30 another change is added on the half hour. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During nighttime hours the measured and precise step of the on duty sentinel remains unchanged from the daylight hours.
Why 21? The significance of ’21’ reflects the twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
It is awe-inspiring. After you watch the process — which is repeated exactly the same, day in, day out, in all weather, throughout the day — you can begin to get a better appreciation and understanding of what it took to plant a single flag.
This Memorial Day, remember that men and women like these are guarding freedom…our freedom. Words like ‘tradition,’ ‘honor,’ and ‘sacrifice’ mean something to them. It’s not political. It’s not partisan. It is their duty, and they chose it freely.
- Follow Jon Dougherty on Twitter at @JonDougherty10