08.26.11

Washington Institution Defies Hurricane

Everything else in the nation’s capital may be shuttered, but not the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Laura Colarusso on an enduring military symbol that the Army has pledged never to leave unguarded.

Neither rain nor sleet nor Hurricane Irene will prevent soldiers from standing sentry at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

Though most businesses, shops, and government offices will be closed, not even the hurricane expected to hit the Washington area this weekend—and its roughly 85-miles-per-hour winds—will keep the guards from their duty.

“The tomb has been guarded continuously since 1948,” said Maj. John Miller, a spokesman for the Old Guard, the Army unit that patrols the place. “There’s been severe weather in the past. There will be severe weather in the future. We have contingency plans.”

The tomb itself remains an important symbol in military lore. In 1921, Congress authorized the burial of a single soldier from World War I. Thirty-seven year later, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill allowing for the unidentified remains of soldiers from World War II and the Korean War to be interred at the memorial. In 1984, an unknown service member who died in Vietnam was laid to rest.

Tradition has dictated that the tomb remain guarded at all times. There has been at least one soldier watching over the tomb since the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment took over the mission a few years after the end of World War II. A sentinel is present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, including holidays.

When it rains, the guard stands under a green nylon tent that’s used for wreath-laying ceremonies to shield him from the inclement weather. As the winds start to pick up Saturday afternoon and into Sunday, he will then, if necessary, move into what’s known as the “Memorial Display Room,” essentially a marble enclosure that holds plaques and other honoraria dedicated to the unknown soldiers. From there, the guard will have “a continual line of sight on the tomb,” Miller said.

There’s been severe in the past. There will be severe weather in the future. We have contingency plans.

Though hurricanes are rare in the mid-Atlantic, this isn’t the first time this decade the Old Guard has had to deal with such extreme weather. In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel ripped through the nation’s capital with winds gusting up to close to 60 miles per hour. The storm killed 10 people in Virginia and one in Maryland. Despite the driving rain and windy conditions, the tomb remained guarded.

Still, safety will be a top priority for the cemetery. “We’re not putting a soldier’s life at risk,” Miller said.