Several years ago, my husband and I, along with our two daughters and my niece, hurried up the hill to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. to watch the changing of the guard. Once there, I was surprised at how quietly the hundreds of people watched the lone soldier pace back and forth with such precision. The reverential silence was broken only by the guard as he clicked his heels together.
He followed an exact path of twenty-one steps in each direction. With perfect posture and timing, he marched back and forth in front of the large white tomb that contained the body of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. (Unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam Conflict are buried in an adjacent tomb.)
At the appointed time for the changing of the guard, a second soldier commanded the crowd to stand and to remain silent. As the impressive ceremony continued, the replacement guard approached from the right. As the three soldiers moved with predetermined precision, I sensed they considered it a high honor to have been chosen to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns.
As the ceremony continued, I thought about how the four dead soldiers who were “known but to God” represented all the men and women who served our country so valiantly and sacrificially. Gratitude swept over me as I reflected on their contributions to freedom.
I also felt thankful for the young men from the Army’s 3rd Infantry who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. Those volunteers train for months to carry out that responsibility. And they keep their lonely vigil 24 hours a day, despite the weather. Even during the night watches when no crowds are present, they continue to guard the tomb, changing shifts every two hours, in order to prevent any interruption in the tribute paid to the dead who served in our country’s armed forces.
Such constant tribute doesn’t lessen our personal responsibility to honor those who helped provide the freedoms we enjoy. We ought to pause often to remember them. We need to offer frequent prayers of gratitude for the sacrifices they made. And just as the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns maintain the highest standards of military bearing and conduct at all times, so also should we conduct ourselves in such a way that we do not devalue the sacrifices made on our behalf.
Excerpted from Reflections by Johnnie Ann Burgess Gaskill, ©2002. Contact information for the author is given on her website: http://www.eThomaston.net/johnnie