21 Steps

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The soldier’s gait was careful as he took his 21 steps, clearly rehearsed, from one side of the black mat to the other. His legs seemed to move on their own as his torso and head remained rigid with perfect posture. His footfalls were exact, measured and thorough. He stopped at the other end of the mat, clicked his heels together ceremoniously, and held his gun over his shoulder. After several seconds, he turned his body to the side, shifting his weapon. And shortly after, that, he took another 21 steps to the other side.

I watched the soldier for a dozen or so minutes and felt the solemnity of his position, the exactness of his duty. The entire scene was picturesque and the atmosphere was heavy with the responsibility of it all. The pavement around him shone in the light rain, and I could see his reflection perfectly in it. He marched repeatedly in front of one stone tomb, a single monument to the tragedies and consequences of war. The hillside rolled out from there beautifully, with dense dark trees, now leafless as they awaited snowfall, to the grey expanse of sky beyond.

The walk to the Tomb through Arlington National Cemetery had been haunting. The perfectly manicured rows of white graves, lost soldiers remembered by names, ranks, and dates etched in stone. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and two of their children were buried just yards from this site, a speech of his captured in stone around him as a small flame burned eternally over his grave. Hundreds of graves stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see, through sloping hills and valleys.

I had heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier prior to this, but I had never known much about it. The Tomb contained just a few remains, the bodies of randomly selected unidentified soldiers, American casualties of war from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. These four bodies, brought to America to represent all of their fallen soldiers, and entombed here.

The tomb guards have been here on vigil since 1948. With their polished uniforms of black coat, black hat, black sunglasses, shining boots, blue pants with yellow stripe, devoid of rank to show respect, gun placed carefully on shoulder, the guards constantly patrol in shifts, day and night. They patrol in heat, in rain, in snow, and in high winds. They patrol on Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years and the 4th of July. They patrol when tourists gather to watch them, and they patrol in the dark of night, standing constant respectful vigil. The position of tomb guard is highly revered within the army, and requires its own intensive training. When the guards here are not standing vigil, they are performing other duties, such as acting as honor guards at military funerals. They work consistently, and rotate through their shifts, in this honorary and ceremonial position of valor, standing over the unknowns.

I scrolled on my phone, curious about many things, learning that the first African American guard had patrolled starting in 1960, and the first woman guard not until 1997. As I read about how the guards had chosen to remain stationed even during hurricane level weather a few years back, I grew distracted by a few women next to me, laughing and chattering lightly. I looked up to see them, mildly frustrated by their disrespect, when I saw the guard take two steps off of the black mat and change his stance. He faced the women without looking directly at them, and spoke loudly. I can’t remember his exact words.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place of silence and respect!”

He paused for a moment, then took his 21 steps to the other side, where he began his vigil again. My heart was pounding nervously at the intensity of the moment. The women immediately quieted down and stood respectfully. Minutes later, I heard the man speak once more, when a child, who had been mimicking his march and movements for several minutes, leaned his body on the railing. Again, the man stepped off the mat and spoke, this time more softly. “Do not lean on the railings.” A further phone search said the guards only spoke when people were breaking the rules of the area, and that when people tried to cross the barrier, the guards could take action.

The rain picked up in intensity as a loud clock chimed a dozen times nearby, each chime resounding with weight over the cemetery. At the hour turned to noon, two more men carefully joined the guard on the mat and completed a classic changing of the guard. At one moment, when all three men turned to face the Tomb, and the commanding officer quietly raised a hand in respect, I got chills down my spine.

I walked away from the Tomb after that, thinking about the men standing guard and the men memorialized inside. I wondered who they were, where they were from, what their families were like, what legacies they left behind. I wondered if DNA technology now could take their genetic markers and find their families and identify the soldiers, and I wondered if this could be done for all of the rest of the lost, providing closure to families decades later. I wondered if it ever would.

I thought of war and atrocity, and when war is for the right reasons. I thought of political battles, and men with their guns. I thought of mothers worrying over their soldiers. And I drew strange comfort from the fact that I knew, here forward, that guards would be standing over the men in those tombs, every hour of every day, for years to come.

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