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Tomb Guards Stand Sentinel Through Isabel's Threatening Sweep

By Steve Vogel, Courtesy of the Washington Post
Thursday, October 2, 2003

Standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery at the height of the storm caused by Hurricane Isabel, Sergeant First Class Fredrick Geary heard a sharp cracking sound. The tomb sentinel did not flinch as an old tree collapsed a couple dozen yards from the plaza where he stood.

"There was this crack, and it was on the ground," Geary said the day after Isabel crashed through the Washington area on the night of September 18. "I just watched it."

Geary could have retreated to shelter. As Isabel approached, commanders gave tomb guards the option of moving under the shelter of the tomb's arches or even inside the trophy room during the storm.

That did not happen.

"Other than something earth-shattering, we had no intention of doing anything other than our duty," said Geary, who, as sergeant of the guard, made the decision to keep the sentinels on the black mat that they walk 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

It was a heartwarming story of devotion to duty and honor in the face of adversity, and it made the news around the country and the world. But the version most people heard was a bit exaggerated.

The Associated Press, which broke the story, reported that the tomb guards "were given -- for the first time in history -- permission to abandon their posts and seek shelter."

Picking up this theme, Tom Brokaw of NBC News saluted "this display of pride and patriotism," reporting that "those who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were told they could abandon their 24-hour-a-day post and come indoors."

In fact, according to tomb guards and their commander, the soldiers never had permission to abandon their posts. They did have a contingency plan allowing them to withdraw to safer positions while continuing to guard the tomb. If the wind had really been nasty, they could have moved underneath the amphitheater arches, a position that afforded some shelter but would have left them outdoors. If conditions were life-threatening, they could have moved inside to the trophy room.

The sentinels would have been able to watch the tomb even had they been forced inside, according to Capt. Tom Piaget, commander of the company that oversees the tomb sentinels. "The mission was never in jeopardy, and neither were the soldiers," he said.

Most news reports also made it sound as though the guards had stood up to the instructions of confused though well-meaning superiors.

They did not report that it was Geary himself -- the sentinel who stood through much of the storm -- who had suggested that the tomb guards needed a contingency plan. Based on the projected threat of Isabel earlier in the week, Geary, as sergeant of the guard, had recommended to his chain of command that the guards have a backup procedure in case the winds were endangering lives.

The plan was approved by Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent Jack Metzler and by commanders with the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Old Guard), the regiment at Fort Myer in Arlington responsible for protecting the tomb.

"It would have been irresponsible not to have a contingency plan," Piaget said.

The version viewers heard on CNN even had the soldiers disobeying orders to stay at their post. "The soldiers who stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were given permission to leave their posts and seek shelter," Anderson Cooper told viewers on Sept. 19. "It was an order the soldiers on duty did not obey."

It made for a better story that way.

The actual version is still impressive. At the cemetery the day after the storm hit, ground crews were busy cleaning up 24 fallen trees, including two near the tomb and its sentinels.

However, tomb sentinels are accustomed to all kinds of bad weather while on duty. Geary, 37, a resident of Prince William County, was downright dismissive of Isabel. "This storm did not live up to anywhere near the hype that the media made," he said. "It wasn't anything more than we've seen at other times."

Superintendent Metzler was impressed. "There were trees coming down, the wind was blowing, but they stood their post," said Metzler, who lives at the cemetery. "These guys are young studs."

Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns is a solemn duty, reserved for only the finest soldiers. The tomb, dedicated to lost and missing American soldiers from all wars, has been continuously guarded since 1937.



Friday, September 19, 2003

Standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at the height of the storm Thursday night in Arlington National Cemetery, Sergeant First Class Fredrick Geary heard a sharp crashing sound. The tomb sentinel did not flinch as an old tree collapsed a couple of dozen yards from the plaza where he stood.

"There was this crack, and it was on the ground," Geary said today. "I just watched it."

Geary could have retreated to shelter had he chosen. As Isabel approached, the tomb guards were, for the first time in their history, given the option by commanders of moving under the shelter of the tomb's arches, or even inside the trophy room during the storm.

It did not happen. "Other than something earth-shattering, we had no intention of doing anything other than our duty," said Geary, who, as sergeant of the guard, made the decision to keep the sentinels on the black mat that they walk 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

At the cemetery today, ground crews were busy cleaning up more than 20 trees that fell during the storm, including two near the tomb and its sentinels.

"There were trees coming down, the wind was blowing, but they stood their post," said Jack Metzler, superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. "These guys are young studs."

Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns is a solemn duty, reserved for only the finest soldiers. The tomb, dedicated to the lost and missing American soldiers from all wars, has been continuously guarded since 1937.

Tomb sentinels are accustomed to all kinds of bad weather while on duty, and Geary, a 37 year-old resident of Prince William County, was downright dismissive of Isabel. "This storm did not live up to anywhere near they hype that the media made," he said. "It wasn't anything more than we've seen at other times."



ARLINGTON, Va. - As the winds from Hurricane Isabel swept over Arlington National Cemetery, the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns were given for the first time in history permission to abandon their posts and seek shelter.

"They told us that. But that's not what's going to happen," said Sergeant Christopher Holmes, standing vigil on overnight duty. "That's never an option for us. It went in one ear and right out the other."

The monument was established in 1921 with the interment of an unknown World War I soldier. A sentry has been posted there continuously since 1930.

With the fierce storm bearing down Thursday night, cemetery officials decided to let the guards move indoors if they felt they were in danger. Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler said he believed it was the first time they have been allowed to do so.

"We certainly didn't want to put these guards in jeopardy unnecessarily," Metzler said.

The tomb is protected by soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Usually about a half-dozen are there, taking turns standing guard, and security cameras also are used.

Holmes' group was on duty for 24 hours, from 6 a.m. Thursday until 6 a.m. Friday. They took turns patrolling the tomb in hourly shifts.

The tomb consists of four graves. Three contain remains of soldiers who died in World War I, World War II and Korea. The fourth, representing unknown soldiers who died in Vietnam, now stands empty; the remains it used to hold were identified about five years ago using DNA technology.

Staff Sergeant Alfred Lanier, also on duty Thursday night, said guards might move inside if the storm became truly life-threatening. But he didn't think it was likely.

"Once you become a badgeholder, it's like you'll do whatever you have to do to guard the unknowns," Lanier said. "For one, it's my job. And for two, that's just how much respect I myself have for the unknowns. That's just something we cherish."

The sentries were not entirely unprotected in the storm; they wore rain gear and could warm up with coffee or hot chocolate when not standing guard.

Holmes said he was willing to risk his life keeping watch over the tomb.

"It's just considered to be the greatest honor to go out there and guard," Holmes said. "It's not only the unknowns. It's a symbol that represents everyone who's fought and died for our country."

The cemetery is the resting place of more than 260,000 people. Twenty-one funerals were held there Thursday, and 16 were scheduled Friday.

Another famous symbol at the cemetery, the eternal flame over President John F. Kennedy's grave, was left on its own through the storm. The natural gas-powered flame can sputter out in heavy wind or rain, but is designed to immediately reignite itself.

Posted: 19 September 2003 - Updated: 2 October 2003