The Unknown Soldiers

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A soldier from the U.S. Army's Old Guard honor guard walks at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington
(Image courtesy of the Jawa Report.)

And the soldier marched.

Twenty one steps. Always. At the end of the mat, he turns toward the tomb and counts: One, two, three…

After 21 seconds, he turns and walks the mat again. Twenty one more steps. Always 21.

He neither smiles nor frowns. He marches with purpose.

He’s the Sentinel.

It is his solemn duty to guard the tomb. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Tombs that contain remains of unidentified U.S. soldiers from World Wars I and II, and the Korean War. The Arlington, Va.-based monument is intended to honor all unidentified men and women who died serving their country.

Had they met in life, the soldiers guarding this tomb may not have even liked or respected the fallen soldiers they now honor with such reverence.

Doesn’t matter. There are no judgments. No questions like, “why are we doing this?” or “why do these soldiers matter more than others?”

Those questions aren’t relevant. Not to the Sentinel.

And so they walk. Twenty one steps. Twenty one steps, exactly. And then they face the tomb for 21 seconds, not 20 or 22.

Purpose. Precision.

The scene is somber. Respectful. Ceremonial. I’ve seen it twice, deeply moved both times.

The discipline is unlike anything I’ve seen.

The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, every day, no matter what, and has been, every second since July 1, 1937.

For 78 years, soldiers apply to be part of the elite team. A group who sacrifices so much so they can walk the mat. Guard the tomb. Preserve honor and tradition. I use the word “he” to describe the soldier because the vast majority of Tomb Guards have been male, but at least three have been female.

Why do they do this?

Near as I can tell, they do it because they said they would. They do it because they can.

They walk the mat during severe storms.

They walk the mat with hundreds of onlookers.

They walk the mat in the dark of night with none.

What’s Our Problem, Then?

It’s worth asking.

If these men and women can perform this ritual. One of such discipline and precision and honor for people they don’t even know. Why can’t we exhibit an appropriate amount of discipline and respect for those we love and care for most?

What separates those soldiers from you and me?

They will sacrifice their entire way of life to be part of a chosen few. The Tomb Guard.

But you won’t take a deep breath and shut up for five minutes to REALLY pay attention to and care about something your partner needs from you?

Working out is too hard? Being kind is too hard? Doing the best job you can on this project or that chore is too hard?

For the people you love?

For the people who pay you?

For the people who count on you?

What’s our problem?

Sept. 11, 2001, 9:37 a.m. EST

And the soldier marched.

Perhaps with many tourists present. Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. is a popular tourist attraction among visitors to Washington D.C.

Sept. 11, 2001 was a gorgeous Tuesday morning. Clear skies throughout most of the continental United States.

I bet there were people there.

At 9:37 a.m., a jet airliner brushed the treetops perched atop the hills of Arlington National Cemetery. It must have scared everyone. Seconds later, that jet slammed into the Pentagon building. The symbol of American military might and the headquarters for the nation’s Department of Defense. 184 innocent people died in a fiery explosion.

It wasn’t until my last visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns and realizing where the Pentagon was in relation for this to dawn on me. The jet screamed overhead without warning. And then exploded into the side of the Pentagon.

There, a fire raged for hours. Onlookers must have screamed. The nation and many parts of the world were horrified.

What might happen next?

But, amidst the chaos, the solider marched. Exactly 21 steps. Then, again.

Shame is a bad thing. We shouldn’t be shaming people.

But if it’s an effective motivator to change for the better, maybe it’s worth it.

I couldn’t love and respect my wife even when it was hard?

I can’t give my beautiful son my undivided attention any time he wants it?

I can’t work out every single day?

I can’t give more of my time and money to people who need it?

What’s my problem?

No matter what’s happening around them, the Sentinels walk.

Twenty one steps. Always 21. No mistakes.

For a mission many of us can’t fully appreciate or understand.

They walk no matter what. No matter what. Because they made a vow to do so.

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love. 

–Mother Teresa

And the soldier marched.

6 thoughts on “The Unknown Soldiers”

  1. My father fought in the Korean (forgotten) War. He joined the US Navy because his parents did not have the money to send him to college and he needed to do something with his life. According to my dad, joining some military branch was the thing to do at that time.

    Ask someone who is in the military why they joined. Most will say, “To fight for this country. To protect our freedom. Because I didn’t want to go to college. Because I needed money for college.”

    Now ask someone why they got married. Most will say, “Because I was in love.” or they simply say, “for love”.

    Now defer back to your post: Love is a Choice.

    There’s your answer to this post. That’s what wrong with us.



  2. Reblogged this on martha0stout and commented:
    Because honor is not something that you can define it is something that you have because you choose to have it. You made a decision and each time something comes up that might question that decision you just have to remember that you’ve already made it and carry on keeping with that decision.
    It sounds hard.
    It sounds easy.
    It sounds like life.

  3. In a few months my daughter is getting married. It’s going to be a very happy occasion. Her future husband and she have had a number of shitty relationships in the past. They now see what those relationships lacked. They are on page . They respect each other. They love unconditionally and value their union. They courageously move forward together. Work together in their own business. Are on the same team. Very few problems have arisen in their courtship. Nothing they weren’t willing to fix together. They honor each other. He made an appointment with me to ask for her hand….he made an appointment with my sons to ask them as well. I grew up with his mom and know his entire family. They are great people hard workers and faithful people. Anne and I couldn’t be happier. Today she called in tears as she was asked by a friend for help moving out of the marital home . My daughter is heart broken for her friend and the demise of their family. The issues seem typical…communication….trust…boundaries and deal breakers. My daughter asked Anne for some advice for her friends. Anne simply said ” be sure that she can truly say that they tried everything ” their children will eventually ask why. Without knowing any of the details I surmised that no counciling took place….no 3rd party intervention…no calm discussions of expectations and plans for moving forward. Just seems like a discard. I don’t know this young family, I wish I could talk to them… I merely injected to my daughter and her future husband that love and commitment are choices…choices that require hard work, value, and courage. Tenaciousness is a key component in happily ever after. Just like the sentinel

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