One of the most reverent monuments in all of Washington D.C. is “The Tomb of the Unkown Soldier.” The marble tomb sits on top of a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, looking out over D.C., where it has stood since 1921.
The sarcophagus is the final home for the remains of World War I military members whose remains were not identified. Eventually, the remains of other soldiers were added to the tomb in 1958 and 1984.
The solemn ground is a place of morning and reflection, a place to honor those who have fought and died for our country and our freedoms but were unable to be identified like the rest of the service members who are buried in Arlington.
In early wars, mass graves were common occurrences. Bodies needed to be buried quickly, or there was so much damage that the bodies were unidentifiable. The War of 1812 saw mass graves, and the Civil War saw soldiers buried on the side of the road. In the Spanish-American War, the Army was put in charge of the burials, and the identification rate increased.
Soldiers were issued aluminum discs as a means of identification. With the new discs also came the creation of the Graves Registration Service. However, there were 100,000 casualties in World War I. It became a challenging decision whether or not to send the bodies back to the states from Europe.
The tomb holds the body of one unknown soldier, meant to represent all of the unknown soldiers who have served. The Tomb has three wreaths to represent Peace, Victory, and Valor. The west side of the Tomb is inscribed: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
The Tomb is guarded 24/7, 365 days a year, with military guards from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard.” Soldiers go through strict selection and training to become an official guard.
The routine the soldiers learn holds much symbolism. A guard marches 21 steps down behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, faces north for 21 seconds, and then marches 21 steps down the black mat. This is followed by “shoulder-arms,” where the guard swiftly places his gun on his shoulder nearest the Tombs visitors.
This shows that the Guard stands between the Tomb and any threats while 21 is a nod at the highest honor: the 21-gun salute.