When the first relief of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sentinels reported for their 26-hour shift at Arlington National Cemetery last Monday morning, they knew they would be the ones guarding the tomb during the wind and rain of superstorm Sandy. Ultimately one of the sentinels would volunteer to stay outside during the storm for a 23-hour watch.
But for the sentinels who guard the tomb, standing watch during Sandy would be no different from what they do every other day of the year.
"This is what we all volunteer to do," said Staff Sergeant Michael Buelna, the commander of the first relief. "For us we don't really think anything of it, it's what we do."
Located on a hilltop overlooking the cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknowns is located on a plaza of Arlington Cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater.
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A white marble sarcophagus lies above the remains of an Unknown soldier from World War I. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War are buried in crypts in front of the sarcophagus. A third crypt used to contain the remains of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War, but they were later exhumed and identified as the remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. The Unknown Soldiers represent the ultimate sacrifice of all missing and unknown service members of America's wars.
Since April 6, 1948, Tomb Sentinels from the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment's "The Old Guard" have guarded the Tomb for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year regardless of the weather.
But Buelna, 29, of Santa Maria, Calif., didn't downplay the shift's experience. "It was definitely an exciting time," he said.
"We've had harsh weather here before, so we were expecting it to be amplified," said Sergeant Shane Vincent, 25, of Casper, Wyo. "We had everything ready as if the power was going to go out."
So instead of bringing their usual one-day allotment of food, the relief brought in a two-day supply and their commanders also provided them with Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) in case storm damage led to their being cut off.
A light rain was falling when the soldiers of the first relief came on watch and began "walking the mat" in their formal dress blue uniforms. Walking the mat is what most tourists to the tomb witness during their visits. The sentinels march in front of the tomb for 21 paces, then face north to stand at attention for 21 seconds before marching 21 paces in the other direction.
The storm was coming, so the cemetery was closed a short time later. As is standard when the cemetery is closed, the six members of the relief changed out of their formal uniforms into a wet-weather version of their camouflaged uniforms, called advanced combat uniforms (ACU's).
During inclement weather and nighttime hours, the tomb's sentinels can stand watch over the tomb in a small enclosure made of green cloth with an awning known as "the box," which is located 20 feet from the tomb plaza. Sentinels can remain inside the box for two-hour intervals with their M-14 rifles by their side, though they are not required to be at attention. "We basically stay there to be vigilant and watch around and make sure nothing's going on," said Vincent. A brief informal changing ceremony replaces the formal ceremony witnessed during daytime hours.
With the cemetery closed, Vincent volunteered to remain outside throughout the megastorm. "I promised the guys I worked with, if there was ever an opportunity or a time the cemetery closed, I'd pull a 24-hour shift," said Vincent, who added that to his knowledge such a shift had never been done before.
"I stayed out there for the entire shift," said Vincent. "I was the one that was out there, others would come and 'show love' and spend time with me out there."
When he began his historic shift, Vincent said Sandy was "nothing special," what he called "your basic storm." Luckily for Vincent, Sandy's rain fell on the back side of the box and not in the direction of its uncovered doorway.
At around 8 pm Sandy's winds picked up significantly, and Vincent describes the next four hours as "the worst of it."
Throughout his watch his relief mates would join him one at a time in one- to two-hour shifts and spend time with him at the box to help motivate him, as well as to experience the storm first-hand.