Silence and Respect

1 year ago

Tomb Guards and the Public

I’d like to do something a little different in this issue and pull back to a larger perspective of peoples’ experience of the Tomb. Normally, the newsletter focuses on history, a connection to something happening in the here and now, or work in progress on projects like the Centennial. But when I saw the new challenge coins being offered in the store — “Silence and Respect” see below — my thoughts took off in a different direction and I wanted to pull together two perspectives — the Tomb Guards and the Public — and say something about how they work together for the Unknown Soldiers.

There’s much to be said about how the Tomb Guards carry the tradition of Silence and Respect. It’s “carried” in every one of their actions, from the moment they emerge from the Quarters, through each and every step they take on the Plaza. It’s there out of sight from the public, down in the Quarters. And its most visible, in the “routine” of walking the mat and the extraordinary care taken with every ceremony that takes place at the Tomb. Event after event, day after day the hard work of the Tomb Guards goes forward. The average Arlington visitor rarely gets a glimpse into the hourly demands of wreath laying and dignitary visits.

The sheer routine has to make its demands beyond the “mere” physical perfection. And it might be possible for an individual to “mis-step” and make their time on the Plaza about the “performance of the walk.” One has to think that’s human and understandable. It’s a pride that rightly belongs to Tomb Guards. But somehow it doesn’t happen. At least, I haven’t seen it. Their silent focus always remains with the Unknown Soldiers. I’ve spoken with Tomb Guards who agreed that some part of their desire to walk the mat was motivated by the “glimpse of a bayonet above the crowd,” but it’s never something as obvious and simple as that. Tomb Guards all settle into something deeper and richer. That careful Silence and profound Respect attaches to Tomb Guards almost physically. It’s a stillness they carry years later. That relentless focus on the Unknown Soldiers remains. It’s unflinching.

Touch a Tomb Guard and you touch an Unknown Soldier

I believe there’s a kind of alchemy that takes place on the Plaza. What Tomb Guards carry “transmutes” visitors, shifting, changing and making them part of “the watch.” Tomb Guards transmit their own personal experience of the Tomb to the public and the change is permanent. Some part of the Visitor is permanently attached to his or her own minute at the Tomb and they remain there, in memory, honoring the Unknown Soldiers. It might happen as a visitor watches the changing of the Guard, or in the measured walk across the mat, or in countless other ways. It happened first for me watching a Tomb Guards walk up the stairs from the Quarters. It was a private moment, one that relatively few people actually pay attention to. But if they do, it’s special. The Tomb Guard is already fully intent on what he or she is about to do, gathering energy for what it about to come. He or she is now completely focused on the task at hand. For me, it was one of those moments where the gap between public and Tomb Guard closed just enough for something to be transmitted, passed on or exchanged. I “caught” the Tomb Guard’s Silence and Respect, and it stuck.

This is one of the mysteries of the Tomb. In small moments: a Tomb Guards mounting the steps, the inspection of a weapon during the Guard changes, or that precise action during a wreath laying that catches a individual’s eye, something is passed from the Tomb Guard on station and the long line of Tomb Guards behind him/her to the public participants standing witness nearby. They’re all pulled together to share in their connection to the Unknown Soldiers and the long line of those who have honored them in the past.

Tomb Guards stand in silence, looking back to the past lest we ever forget and out into the future anchoring a regard for all soldiers’ sacrifice. And the public absorbs, is changed by and shares in the mystery of what Ron Rosser called the most “sacred place in America.”

Frank N. Schleicher
SHGTUS Newsletter Editor

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