The Changing of the Guards is undoubtedly one of the most time-honored traditions of our country and one that is given great weight and reverence. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, located in Arlington National Cemetery, draws thousands of visitors each year. The Tomb was erected in honor of fallen soldiers, many of which remain unidentified, and is guarded by Tomb Sentinels 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions. Rain, snow, sleet and even hurricane cannot drive these Sentinels away.
The guards that stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns are chosen only from the 3rd U.S. Infantry, or “The Old Guard,” and they’re not chosen lightly. As one of the most elite posts a soldier can hold, the job of Tomb Sentinel requires unwavering dedication, perfection and precision. The role consists of standing guard over the Tomb for half an hour; once the half hour is up, a lone Sentinel will be relieved of his duty by another, but not before a white glove inspection of the rifle being held is performed. While the Tomb Sentinels appear to be as close to perfect as any human is likely to get, a recent incident reminds us that even they have not achieved perfection.
At a recent Changing of the Guards ceremony, the relief Commander dropped the rifle on the guard’s foot. What makes this event extraordinary (outside of the fact that the Commander dropped the rifle) is that the bayonet went straight through the guard’s foot. While you or I or any other person likely would have yelped out in pain, this guard barely even flinched.
The whole incident was caught on tape by a visitor. The Commander was performing the routine white glove inspection of the Sentinel’s rifle when in an extremely rare instance of misstep, the rifle slipped. The bayonet fell, point down, straight through the guard’s dress shoes.
Neither of the guards reacted. Both kept their composure, as they are trained to do, and completed the ceremony. The relief Commander immediately regained possession of the rifle and carried on. They finished inspection and then marched off in perfect rhythm, without a single hitch in the guard’s gait that suggested anything was amiss.
Only two things suggested that anything extraordinary had taken place: the momentary flash of pain across the guard’s face as the bayonet pierced his foot and the blood that leaked from the top of the guard’s boot.
Tomb Sentinel is one of the most difficult badges to earn in the U.S. Military, and only one-tenth of soldiers who ever try to earn it are successful. This is because the role requires more dedication than even most military men and women possess, which is saying something considering our service people are some of the most disciplined individuals in our country today.
Tomb Sentinels are required to hold their post no matter what, and guards have been seen out in heavy blizzards, Hurricanes Sandy and Irene and a number of other conditions that would have driven most people to shelter. So when this guard didn’t move or cry out when a bayonet pierced his foot, we cannot say we’re surprised. However, that does not mean that we aren’t wholly impressed!