Hurricane Isabel struck Washington, D.C., hard that night.
It was Sept. 18, 2003. I lived in Alexandria, Va., at the time. I rode out the storm reading a book and enjoying a glass of wine.
At the Arlington National Cemetery, just a few miles from where I sat, the sentinels who stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns were having an entirely different experience.
The Tomb of the Unknowns was established in 1921. Three of its chambers contain the remains of unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and Korea (a fourth chamber had contained the remains of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam war until DNA technology determined his identity).
Only the finest soldiers are selected to guard the Tomb. The sentinels are specially trained soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). They watch over the Tomb 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As each solitary guard paces before the Tomb, his movements are precise, his dress impeccable.
Each guard’s dedication is made clear by the Sentinel’s Creed:
My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect.
His bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.
Which brings us back to Hurricane Isabel.
For the first time in the Tomb’s history, in preparation of a potentially dangerous storm, the commanding officers established a contingency plan.
The sentinels were free to withdraw to safer positions under the Memorial Amphitheater arches or inside the trophy room should conditions become life-threatening — positions from which they could still maintain their mission watching over the Tomb.
But none would leave.
It is a solemn duty to march before the Tomb, after all. The sentinel’s meticulous ritual is an outward display of gratitude and remembrance for the sacrifices so many have made for their country — particularly the unknown soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
By guarding the Tomb with eternal vigilance, the sentinel validates the words of the soldier’s prayer:
“It is the soldier who has given us our freedoms. It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It’s the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It’s the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to object. It’s the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial….”
And so, as Hurricane Isabel struck — 24 trees would be uprooted across the cemetery and three headstones would be crushed — each sentinel took turns standing his ground.
There really was no other option. How could a sentinel retreat to safer ground in the midst of a dinky hurricane when so many others have given so much more?
It’s true the hurricane could have been plenty worse than it turned out to be. It’s possible that life-threatening severity might have caused the sentinels to, for the first time since they began guarding the Tomb in 1948, maintain their mission from safer ground.
Though I doubt it.
We’ve just come through a wrenching political season — some folks are jubilant at the results, whereas others are deflated and even worried — but despite the disagreement over policies and politics, I’m confident America will do the right thing over the long haul.
I’m confident America’s best is yet ahead.
I believe this because virtue still lives in America. Honor, sacrifice and duty are still alive and well.
If you don’t believe me, pay a visit to the Arlington National Cemetery and stop by the Tomb of the Unknowns.
It is one place where American sacrifice, duty and honor are on full display 24 hours a day every day of the week.
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