The sentinels are always on guard. They pace silently as the snowflakes fall and the cold creeps in. They carry out their mission even when the winds howl and the rains come. Every hour of the day and every day of the year, the soldiers guard those who are buried here.
I first visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the summer of 1995 with a number of my fellow college of engineering graduates from Florida. Of all the magnificent sites seen during that trip, it was the Tomb of the Unknowns that stirred the strongest emotion.
The meaning behind the Tomb resonated with me in a way I could not have anticipated. In fact, the visit impacted our whole group as we walked through the cemetery and looked out over the endless rows of headstones. Quietly, we thought about those who sacrificed their lives to purchase our freedom.
For me, the experience instilled an interest in relocating to the D.C. area and to find some way to serve. Ultimately, my visit to the Tomb cemented a plan to attend law school and to do so in our nation’s capital. Two years later, I began school in Washington, D.C. and remained in the city for well over a decade, serving in both Congress and the Administration.
But my journey started at the Tomb.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier rests in the Arlington National Cemetery surrounded by over tens of thousands of gravestones. Many consider our National Cemetery to be the most sacred place in the United States, and it would be difficult to not be moved by its meaning.
The Cemetery was established during the Civil War, when the Union Army occupied General Robert E. Lee’s land and used it to bury their fallen soldiers. On May 13, 1864, the first fallen soldier was buried on the land which now serves as the cemetery. All told, over 16,000 Union soldiers were buried on Lee’s land during the Civil War. And, in 1866, the remains of 2,111 Union soldiers were buried in a common grave known as “unknown soldiers.”
Decades later, General William Connor proposed the burial of an unknown soldier from World War I to honor his service. In response, on December 21, 1920, federal legislation was introduced to create the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and it passed Congress on March 4, 1921.
In late October 1921, a soldier was exhumed from an American military cemetery in France and selected for subsequent burial in Washington, D.C. This unknown soldier was transported to the United States and lied in state in the rotunda beneath our Capitol dome. Thousands of Americans paid their solemn respects. Finally, on November 11, 1921 (Armistice Day), the casket was moved by caisson from the U.S. Capitol to its final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery adjacent to the Memorial Amphitheater.
In 1932, a large sarcophagus was added to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The sarcophagus is composed of seven marble slabs weighing a total of almost 160,000 pounds. On its east side facing the District of Columbia, three Greek figures are carved into the marble and represent Peace, Victory and Valor. On the opposite side reads the following inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
In the coming years, additional unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were honored and interred at the Tomb in separate crypts. Records later identified the Vietnam War soldier and his remains were exhumed and presented to his family for burial. Today the Vietnam crypt remains empty but stands as a testament to those soldiers who remain missing in action.
All of the unknown soldiers have been given Congressional Medals of Honor posthumously. It is fitting that America’s highest honor is awarded to an unknown soldier, representing a sacrifice so great, so consuming, that even their identities were lost in service to their nation.
From its dedication in 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was left completely unguarded. In 1925, a civilian guard was posted during the day, but the Tomb remained unattended at night. To prevent any desecration or disrespect, in March 1926, a permanent military guard was posted. As the oldest branch of the U.S. armed forces, the Army was assigned this duty.
Since July 1, 1937, the Tomb has been guarded without fail—every minute of every day. And, in April 1948, the responsibility was permanently assigned to the U.S. Army’s historic 3rd Infantry.
The 3rd U.S. Infantry is an old and decorated unit that was established in 1784. It is referred to as the “Old Guard” for its fierce fighting during the Mexican War. Based in Fort Myer, Virginia, the Old Guard provides sentinels for the Tomb of the Unknown, but also performs other duties including military security to the nation’s capital during a national emergency.
The Old Guard wears a black and tan buff strap on the left shoulder. This symbolizes the knapsack strap that soldiers wore in the 1800s. Additionally, only the Old Guard marches with fixed bayonets. This display commemorates the 3rd Infantry battle in the Mexican War when Mexican troops suffered a deadly bayonet charge.
Service as a sentinel at the Tomb is extremely stressful, demanding advanced physical and mental fitness. Prospective guards are required to possess exemplary qualities, including a spotless military and criminal record. Serving for 18-24 months, guards undergo an intense training of at least nine months prior to their service. Perfection is expected with constant and critical evaluations on uniform, posture and performance. Often, remedial training is assigned.
If selected, Tomb guards work on a fireman’s schedule and serve 26-hour shifts with multiple days off in between for uniform maintenance, physical training and studying. Guarding the Tomb involves 21 steps along a 63-foot track, a pause for 21 seconds, and 21 steps in return. It is a rhythmic pace that never subsides. Twenty-one remains an honored number symbolic of the highest salute in military ceremonies.
Sentinels stand guard in all circumstances including torrential storms and bitter cold. But such hardships are a part of their solemn creed: “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.”
Changing of the Guard is a reverent time at the Tomb and is witnessed by many visitors to Washington, D.C. This formal relief ceremony is performed every hour when the Cemetery is open (30-minute intervals in summer) and every two hours at night. All those who bear witness to the changing of the guard must remain standing and silent to heighten the respect for this symbolic act. The most coveted walk for a sentinel guard is the “noon moon” walk at 12 pm because it has the highest profile and often the largest attendance.
Guarding the Tomb is considered a high honor and this sacred duty is taken seriously. Visitors are forbidden to enter the restricted space. Back in 1984, a deranged civilian briefly took one of the sentinels hostage at gunpoint. But an off-duty guard quickly—and quite easily—disarmed the man and order was restored.
Overall, the Arlington National Cemetery is considered the most sacred ground in the United States. The Cemetery encompasses more than 624 acres sitting on the west bank of the Potomac River and overlooking our nation’s capital. Since 1864, over 400,000 soldiers have been buried on its hallowed grounds.
To be buried today in Arlington, a soldier must be highly decorated, held prisoner of war, or have a special exception made such as victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Based on its history, however, burials during the Civil War were often due to families being too poor to have a soldier’s remains shipped home.
Across our nation, there are many military families who never received the remains of their son or daughter serving our nation abroad. The Tomb holds a special significance to them.
In visiting the hallowed grounds of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you might find the experience more powerful, and more moving, than your experience of other well-known landmarks, including the White House. I know I did. If you do visit, groups can petition to lay a wreath at the Tomb and participate in a solemn ceremony (details can be found at arlingtoncemetery.mil).
Since moving to Colorado over a decade ago, I’ve climbed mountains, stood on summits, and seen such natural beauty that it makes the heart sing. But those incredible vistas don’t diminish my memories of walking the halls of Congress, sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while quietly appreciating the sacrifice of so many.
For Memorial Day, we pause to remember that we enjoy the blessings of freedom because others, in less certain times, willingly gave up their lives. For us.
Two more unsuccessful attempts were made to revive Tiny Town, but it wasn’t until 1987, when the Northern Colorado Chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management assumed its stewardship, that Turner’s half-pint hamlet rested again upon a firm financial footing. A Realtor in previous life, Nedoma spent many a happy off-hour volunteering there, and by an unbeatable blend of ability, enthusiasm and pure affection eventually earned a shot at the best gig in town.
“I was the first woman in 85 years to become an engineer on the Tiny Town Railroad,” she smiles. “It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Today, Nedoma is loving curator to more than 100 small structures and five Lilliputian locomotives, gracious host to about 80,000 visitors a year, and the woman charged with saving a beloved survivor of devastating fire and catastrophic flood from final destruction by economic drought. If Nedoma has become expert at doing much with little, without a revenue stream, Tiny Town is fast slipping under water.
“The bills don’t stop,” she shrugs.
There’s the lease on the land, of course, and insurance to be paid, and the constant demands of groundskeeping. By far, Nedoma’s biggest expense is maintaining her famous railroad’s track and rolling stock in apple pie order, and the never-ending task of keeping Tiny Town’s abbreviated architecture tended and trim comes in a close second.
“Kids are hard on things,” Nedoma laughs, “and the weather takes a big toll, too. We normally spend April repairing the buildings and getting everything ready for summer, but this year we couldn’t do that. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Most people would say it’s worth the effort. Generations of Coloradans have spent sunny summer days exploring Tiny Town’s handcrafted history, art and whimsy, and Nedoma doesn’t intend to let one of the West’s most cherished family traditions expire on her watch. She’ll need help, though.
“The people up here have been wonderful to us,” she says, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The light at the end of Tiny Town & Railroad’s coronavirus tunnel is $150,000, just enough to see it safely through what’s shaping up to be its driest season in 32 years. Folks looking to help can visit tinytownrailroad.com and follow the link to its GoFundMe page. Every little bit helps, and each dollar invested will return big dividends in family fun for all the sunny summers to come.
“Tiny Town survived the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918,” says Nedoma. “I want to make sure it survives this one.”