“There goes another tourist,” you’re thinking to yourself when you watch someone (anyone) descend onto the metro platform at Arlington Cemetery’s metro stop. It’s a blatant giveaway to your status in this town. Only a backpack-and-water-bottle sporting family of four gets off here! But it was a risk I had to take last night.
I returned to Arlington Cemetery last night to remember the first time I visited the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier almost 7 years ago, but it felt completely different. This time, I was making the trip alone, and without my new college girl friends (giddy schoolgirls) running alongside as I made the 20 minute uphill hike from the metro up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The light through the trees at 6:00 in the evening cascaded over the acres of tombstones, and it was truly gorgeous. The hike uphill seemed like more of a quiet pilgrimage, and signs remind you to remain composed on the hallowed grounds.
As I finally made my way up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I was happy to finally have a place to rest. I set my work bags down (“I’m a local, see!”) and settled in between a military family and a couple.
The repetition of the guard marching back and forth across the tomb is so calming. It was quiet. The sun was shining, and a fountain was playing below. The weather was perfect. Airplanes steadily took off over the Cemetery in their own rhythm of repetition. I felt like I should have been writing a poem. It was all so serene.
You tumble into the repetition: the guard marches 21 steps forward, spends 21 seconds pausing and rearranging his gun, marches 21 steps back again, spends 21 seconds pausing… A plane flies over… Repeat.
Unexpectedly – there are no trumpets or heel clicking to announce his arrival – the commanding guard suddenly appears to announce the changing of the sentinels. He appears with the relieving sentinel, and he commands you to stand and to be silent. The powerful and solemn ceremony commences, where one sentinel relieves the other. In an extremely choreographed – to perfection – dance, the sentinels march, they throw their legs out to let them drop back down – clicking their heels – and they turn around. Finally, the soldier is relieved of duty, and the other begins his steady repetition: 21 steps forward, 21 seconds pausing… Repeat. The sentinels are incredible to watch. They are so dedicated to what they do. They’re serious, and they’re serious perfectionists.
In all that I’ve read on the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, nothing can compare to seeing and hearing it yourself. The details are impeccably complicated, and they all create a balanced song and dance that you have to experience to understand. Or like me, you have to go back again.
When you do make it, here are some facts to wow your out-of-town guests:
- There is a vantage point below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the bottom of the stairs
- The sentinel’s gloves are moistened to improve his grip on the rifle
- The Tomb has been guarded every minute of every day since 1937
- The green shack next to the Tomb is used during wreath-laying ceremonies for the Sentinel to retreat to while flowers and Taps are being presented. But there is also a phone in there with a direct line to the Tomb Guard Quarters – used mainly for emergencies
- There is no unknown soldier in the Tomb from the Vietnam War
- Sentinels guard the Tomb in any weather, including hurricanes and blizzards, as long as safety precautions are met
- There have been 3 female sentinels and 1 female platoon leader
- Sentinels must be between 5’10” and 6’4″ with a proportionate height and build
- The rifle is not loaded
With Senator Kennedy’s burial last weekend at Arlington Cemetery, I can’t think of a better time to go back to the Cemetery and to visit the Changing of the Guard. Not only will you be able to pay your respects to Senator Kennedy, but locals and tourists alike will be visiting Arlington Cemetery to visit his grave, and you’re sure to blend in with the other locals getting off the metro at Arlington Cemetery’s stop.
The ceremony takes about 10 minutes, but allow yourself almost two hours from start to finish. Through September 30th, the cemetery is open until 7:00 p.m. every night, and the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier changes every half hour (after September 30th it’s once an hour). Starting October 1, the Cemetery closes at 5:00 p.m. and the guard changes every hour. So this month you have more than double the opportunity of seeing a changing of the guard as you would in the winter months.