Nov. 9, 2012 -- 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.
"There were a couple of us out there. We could hear trees cracking around us," said Vincent. "We were staring at some of the larger trees, seeing if they'd come down."
But despite the rain and winds, Vincent chose to walk the mat about 10 to 15 times for a minute at a time. "It was pretty nice to see the rain falling sideways and hit me in the face," said Vincent.
Relief commander Buelna said he was O.K. with Vincent's staying outside as long as he could still perform the mission safely. He recalls telling Vincent, "If you honestly think you can't continue, if your legs buckle, you need to let me know so we can go to regular postings."
Though Buelna has only been a sentinel for six months, he was speaking from experience. This past summer, every half hour he and two other soldiers conducted every single guard change for a full 24 hours.
The sentinels will sometimes undertake individual challenges during their watches over the tomb. "We feel honored to do something like that, it's rare, not many people have done that," said Buelna.
While the sentinels felt they were just doing their job, once word got out that they were still at the tomb, the internet buzzed with pride over their mission.
According to Buelna, "When we started checking our Facebook accounts and saw people commenting, it was a bit overwhelming, because this is what we do."
"We understand the public's view that to them this is noble and honorable, to us it's just the same," said Buelna with humility. "It's what we're going to do regardless of the weather, if it's hail, hot temperatures, rain or snow. Whatever the weather, we're going to be there."
Vincent said the sentinels don't do their jobs for recognition.
"Our main goal is to attract and educate the public so that they may better understand the sacrifices made by those who kept our country's freedom and safety intact. A soldier never dies until he is forgotten, a Tomb guard never forgets," Vincent said.
And they carried out their mission as some news photographers sneaked onto the grounds of the closed cemetery to take pictures of what was going on at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
They were told to leave and were reminded that the cemetery is a military post.