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Army sentinels stand watch at Tomb of Unknowns during pandemic

Coronavirus won't break 83-year vigil at Arlington National Cemetery.

Crowds of tourists are gone from Arlington National Cemetery during the pandemic, but sentinels are still standing watch 24/7 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

ABC News got an inside look at the elite guards from the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment as they keep their age-old ritual around the clock.

The changing of the guard, an iconic ceremony familiar to millions of Americans, is now performed with added social distance but no less commitment to those who died unknown.

"It doesn’t matter if it’s a hurricane or in this case a pandemic. We’re always here. We’re always guarding," said Capt. Harold Earls IV, commander of the tomb guards.

The vigil has been going for 83 straight years, or more than 30,000 consecutive days, Earls said. The tomb contains the unidentified remains of American service members who fought in World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

"The unknowns deserve that. Our country deserves this," he added. "This place represents the very best of this country, quite frankly, at a time in which we need reminding of what our very best looks like."

When so much in American life has changed because of COVID-19, the watch at Arlington stays the same: sentinels take 21 steps down the mat, then pause for 21 seconds.

Twenty-one is a symbol of highest military honor to those who served and sacrificed, officials said.

"I can look out and we see row upon row of headstones of white headstone markers. Each one of those are heroes," Earls said. "I think equally during this time, there are also heroes there on the front lines (at hospitals) and the first responders. I think the beautiful thing with this country -- in this moment -- is that during great times of struggling in this country, we’ve always come together. We’ve always come out stronger."

The mission of the "Old Guard" at Arlington is a showcase of American strength at a time of national crisis. The soldiers, for the first time, wear masks in their quarters but take no shortcuts in their attention to detail.

During the guard changing ceremony, inspection of the uniform -- once an in-your-face affair -- is now done from a distance. The guard’s polished rifle, usually handed over for a closer look, is now examined from afar.

It’s the first national pandemic at the Tomb of the Unknowns, but the men and women who guard it are no strangers to difficult conditions.

They have stood watch in torrential downpours, blizzards, heat waves and ice storms. On Sept. 11, 2001, sentinels held post even as the Pentagon came under attack less than two miles away.

"(The unknowns) gave up everything and sacrificed for this country. They died without us even knowing their names. They die without their families being able to say 'thank you,'" said Earls.

Earls said the tomb guards are a symbol of the nation's endless gratitude to its war heroes, much like the billboards and banners popping up across the country today are symbols of gratitude to heroes of a different kind.

"When we see at 7 p.m., when that shift (of New York City hospital workers) comes on at night, and you see people hanging out their windows in New York banging on the pots and pans -- that’s what makes this country so great," he said. "That’s what makes us American."

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