Tomb of the Unknowns

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During a week in which TV viewers are reflecting on the life of the late Alex Trebek, here’s a Jeopardy! answer from Episode #4751 (April 11, 2005):

Under the category Tomb of Unknowns: “Sentinels at the tomb walk exactly this many steps at a time before they stop and turn.” 

You would be correct if you asked, “What is 21?” 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, is a white marble sarcophagus at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  It sits atop a small hill that overlooks Washington D.C. on the other side of the Potomac River. 

The shrine houses the remains of three American soldiers whose remains have never been identified – one each from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.  The Vietnam crypt is currently empty, since the unknown soldier from that war was positively identified by means of DNA a few years ago.

The tomb is unlike any other burial place in America.

That’s because it’s guarded every hour of every day by specially chosen members of the Old Guard, part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment – the oldest active military unit in continuous service in our nation.  The Old Guard arrived on the scene in 1784, just one year after the end of the Revolutionary War. 

The sentinels at the Tomb undergo rigorous training.  They must excel in rifle drill and uniform preparation.  Males and females must be in exceptional physical condition and stay within specified boundaries of height and weight.  Every guard is expected to know the history of the tomb and to memorize the locations of at least 300 prominent graves in the national cemetery.

And they must master the elaborate ritual that’s been happening around the clock since 1937. 

That’s where the number 21 comes into play.

Sentinels walk south on the 63-foot black mat that lies alongside the tomb, taking exactly 21 steps.  They stop and execute a crisp turn 90 degrees to the east, facing the tomb, pausing for 21 seconds.  Then they turn sharply 90 degrees back to the north, pausing once more for 21 seconds.  After walking 21 steps back down the mat, they execute a second series of 90 degree turns, pausing two more times for 21 seconds, before restarting the ritual.

Those increments of 21 symbolize the 21-gun salute, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a fallen warrior. 

The guards don’t take days off for adverse meteorology.  They count their steps through heat waves, rainstorms, blizzards, wind chills, and occasional East coast hurricanes.   

These cumulative expressions of care, attention, and honor are extraordinary.  Especially when you consider that no one, obviously, is trying to escape from the tomb.  And that no one, seriously, has ever attempted to get inside.  Instead, this is a ritual of respect – a dramatic way to spotlight the dozen words chiseled on the back of the tomb:
“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Our nation’s most poignant burial site makes sense only if every life has value – one of the bedrock assertions of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. 

Here are three human beings whose names we do not know, and whose stories no one is able to tell. 

But they, like us, are part of God’s Story.  And in the next world, when the unknown finally becomes known, we will fully grasp why it matters to celebrate every life.

On this Veteran’s Day, may God bless us even now with such grace