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Heat, rain, snow, night — here’s who guards the Tomb of the Unknowns and why

Sgt. Gerry Mansell, of State College, conducts the inspection of the ongoing sentinel during the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in May 1984.
Sgt. Gerry Mansell, of State College, conducts the inspection of the ongoing sentinel during the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in May 1984. Photo provided

In the heart of Arlington National Cemetery is one of our nation’s most visited and honored shrines, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A cadre of highly dedicated and extremely motivated soldiers stand vigil at this hallowed shrine 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the heat, rain, snow and dark of night, these soldiers perform their duties to some of the most exacting and meticulous criteria of any military unit.

These soldiers endure extreme conditions and maintain the highest standards of performance in order to guard these unknown warriors. But why do they guard the Unknown Soldiers?

The World War I Unknown was interred on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1921. In the ensuing years, numerous visitors to the Tomb were observed behaving in a disrespectful manner. Visitors picnicked on the flat marble slab covering the Unknown’s grave, and photographers charged visitors to take a picture on the grave. These are just a few of the indignities cited in numerous complaints to the War Department and Army senior leadership.

Veterans’ organizations, families of fallen soldiers and active duty military members demanded that an armed military guard be posted in order to stop the dishonorable behavior. Department of War officials initially declined the request, citing reduced post war budgets and a lack of billeting accommodations to support a guard unit.

Later, a Washington Post article brought public attention to the indiscretions. As a result, in 1925 the Army posted a civilian guard while the cemetery was open to deter the disgraceful behaviors.

A veterans group ultimately shamed the War Department into posting armed soldiers “to prevent any desecration or disrespect” at the Tomb. So in 1926, an armed soldier was posted to guard the Unknown Soldier during the day.

On July 1, 1937, the guard duty expanded to 24 hours in order to maintain a constant vigil in tribute of the sacrifices of all unknown soldiers. The Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery represents tens of thousands of warriors who lost their lives and, moreover, their identities in service to this country. Ever since that July day, a soldier has stood watch at the Tomb of the Unknown(s) 24 hours a day 365 days a year. That is more than 81 years, or 29,500 days.

On Memorial Day, May 30, 1958, the WW I Unknown Soldier was joined by his comrades from WW II and the Korean Conflict, and thereafter the memorial was been referred to as the Tomb of the Unknowns.

To this day, occasional violations of the Sentinel’s orders still occur. When a visitor violates the Sentinel’s orders, the Sentinel will stop his routine and challenge the violator: “It is requested that visitors maintain a mature and reverent attitude in the vicinity of the Tomb.”

In summary, the Sentinels’ mission has evolved over the years. Their mission is two-fold: to prevent any desecration or disrespect directed toward the Unknowns, and to maintain the highest standards and traditions of the United States Army and this Nation while keeping a constant vigil at this National Shrine.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering 150 courses this fall. Gerry Mansell will lead a course on Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. To receive a free fall semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.

Gerry Mansell served as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery from April 1982 to September 1983.
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