Article Feb 2, 2016

A blizzard, the Tomb of the Unknown, and the empty grave

Sweltering heat. Sub-zero cold. Torrential rains. Howling winds. Since 1948, soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery throughout the Washington region’s most extreme weather conditions, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. No conditions have proven too tough, no threat too great.

So when Winter Storm Jonas recently bore down on the D.C. region, many wondered, “Are soldiers still guarding the Tomb of the Unknown, ’round the clock, during the blizzard?”

Not to worry. “The Old Guard,” as the regiment is also known, quickly assured the public that, true to time-honored commitment, Tomb patrol would continue, uninterrupted. “The Tomb Guards maintain a constant vigil at the Tomb no matter the weather conditions,” the group’s Facebook page stated in a January 22 post, alongside photos of a sentinel marching on guard as the storm’s first snowflakes fell. News reports and social media feeds spread the word. The nation could rest easy.

But there’s more to this inspiring story, a second account that bears sharing.

I was one of the few—and honored—people to witness this graveside watch first-hand. Not when a mere dusting of white had draped the landscape, as The Old Guard photos humbly depicted, but when snow tallies were inching closer to two feet. And I won’t soon forget it.

By mid-day January 23, cars sat parked, buried in a sea of white. Plows struggled to keep up with the falling and blowing snow. Jonas had picked up intensity, escalating toward an official blizzard.

So rather than begin the arduous task of digging out, I decided to set off on foot from my apartment to nearby Arlington Cemetery to offer some moral support and encouragement to the valiant soldiers standing watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Trudging through the snow of Arlington’s hallowed grounds was an experience all its own. Falling snow climbed rows of white marble tombstones, seemingly erasing the etched names of men and women who had sacrificed much in service to our nation. Only the rush of the wind and the hums of plows blazing paths up and down the hilly, winding lanes could be heard. The 624-acre cemetery otherwise lay quiet.

Except for the plaza in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns, perched upon a hill.

Following snow-covered signs, I rounded the Memorial Amphitheater, headed for the Tomb. And what I witnessed next will stick in my mind long after the last of the snow has melted: a solitary soldier, M14 rifle strapped across his back, pushing a shovel across the paved plaza. Mounds of snow buttressed his marching grounds, evidence of labors likely begun some 24 hours earlier with the onset of white canvassing the grounds.

The cemetery was closed, I learned, making me an unexpected—and perhaps the only—civilian visitor of the day. Which is why the sight of this soldier, both guarding the Tomb of the unknown fallen and grooming the ground he’d so faithfully trod, was all the more impressive to behold.

While “walking the mat” during public viewing, Tomb guards adhere to the strictest of disciplines—21 paces at a 90-pace per minute cadence, turning and pausing twice, 21 seconds each, before repeating those steps in the opposite direction. Their demeanor is likewise measured—faces void of expression, eyes fixed squarely ahead.

But the guard I encountered in the apex of the blizzard showed me another side of his esteemed regiment: their humanness. As I approached the young man, he looked me in the eye and shared a brief, warm exchange.

“I just want to thank you for your dedication and commitment, even in this blizzard,” I began, introducing myself across the chained-off area as he shoveled near the plaza’s south side. “It’s an honor,” he responded, without losing his stride. I offered to relieve him from shoveling. He graciously declined. “Thank you for helping out,” he added with a smile, apparently mistaking me as part of a grounds crew clearing snow elsewhere.

In those few minutes at the Tomb, I witnessed not just a soldier on guard, but a servant in action. The young sentinel didn’t need to speak; his actions spoke loud enough. His footprints in the snow reminded me that freedom isn’t free and that integrity is among the highest of virtues. I pondered, as I watched, that duty is not an order to endure, but an opportunity to embrace; that life is not so much about what happens to us—sun or storm—as it is about how we respond to what happens to us; and that we must, in areas big and small in life, be ever vigilant, always on watch.

And as I stood there in the cold, facing east, I also thought about a tomb some 6,000 miles away. It lies empty. Guards once stood its watch, around the clock, heeding the command to “make it as secure as you can” (Matt. 27:62-66). But they could not, ultimately, secure it. Not because thieves overpowered them or the elements overtook them, but because death itself could not contain its occupant. And unlike the fallen soldiers remembered at the Tomb of the Unknowns, whose names are “known but to God,” this death-defying man’s name is known. His name is Jesus. And he, himself, is knowable.

Indeed, that snowy visit to Arlington got me thinking about much. I may never put on a uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces, or bear the esteemed name sentinel in The Old Guard. But I’m thankful the Commander who rose from the once guarded, now empty tomb has enlisted me in his Army of all armies, commissioned to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).

And I’m especially thankful, too, for the soldier at the hilltop Tomb in Arlington—humble and brave, committed and kind—for reminding me of such things. Simply by standing watch, in a blizzard. Shovel and all.

2019 Evangelicals for Life