I didn’t have to ask for directions. Thanks to my trusted smart phone and the banner above the metro station, I was certain I’d arrived at the right place. I rode the escalator out of the station, the cool morning light softly touching the green hills rolling in front of me. The city noise of Washington D.C. was to my back, and spread out before me was nothing but the complete quietness of 300,000 graves.
Arlington National Cemetery is even larger than I imagined. It spans 624 acres, with hundreds of thousands of graves in meticulous rows climbing up hills and down slopes, across streets and pathways. Majority of the headstones honor military servicemen and women, with honorees from every conflict since the Civil War, some of their wives, a few Congressmen, Presidents and even a slave.
As I walked up to the entryway of the cemetery, I was literally stunned to a stop by its size. That’s when I noticed them :: uniform patches of red and green at the foot of grave after grave, merrily beaming in the sun. Nearly every headstone I could see had one—a little holiday wreath. My eyes began to cloud with tears and I wasn’t even inside the cemetery yet.
The Welcome Center is the only place at Arlington with the typical bustling noise and crowds of a touristy place. There workers give out maps and help people locate the graves of loved ones or prominent burials and bus tours continuously depart to take visitors around the cemetery. I was short on time, so I opted to go exploring on my own and already knew my destination.
The Tomb of the Unknowns, better known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is about a 15 minute walk from the Welcome Center if you don’t get distracted by anything else. But that’s easier said than done. There’s something mesmerizing about the headstones there; maybe it’s the perfect rows, the uniformness of their size and shape, or just the sheer volume. Every few minutes I’d stop and read the names and wonder who they were and what lives they left behind when they went to war.
I knew I was close to the Tomb of the Unknowns when I came upon the massive amphitheater. Known as the Memorial Amphitheater, the marble structure is strikingly white, like something out of Roman mythology. The morning sun had reached its midday peak, helping to intensify the magnificent structure by pouring light between its large columns. I circled through the backside and heard the shuffling sound of footsteps, followed by a distinct click. A second click was close behind. I’d found the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded by a sentinel every single second of every single day since 1937. Through hurricanes, blizzards and blazing hot summers, the perfectly-dressed guards keep watch on the tomb on 24-hour shifts. The guard takes 21 paces in one direction across the tomb, pauses for 21 seconds facing east then 21 seconds facing north, takes 21 steps back to the other side of the tomb, then repeats. Each time he turns, he snaps his heels together, making a clicking sound, and shifts his weapon so that it stays facing the visitors. The significance of 21 relates to the 21-gun salute, the military’s highest honor.
Every hour at the top of the hour during winter (and every half hour from April to September), the guards change. Called the Changing of the Guards, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed. Crowds start to gather about 15 minutes before and I’d suggest going to watch the rhythmic pacing of the guard before he passes on his duties. Then, as the echo of the clock tower chimes break the silence throughout the cemetery, a second guard appears to announce that it’s time for the changing of the guards. Suddenly a third sentinel appears, undergoes inspection, then in a rhythmic march, takes the previous guard’s place. This video gives you an idea of what happens.
In ten minutes the guard change has taken place and the new sentinel is pacing at the same time as the previous one, not a beat missed, not a second skipped. The crowd disperses. But still I stayed watching. It was like a metronome; I was hypnotized. I was oddly emotional, overwhelmed with respect. The dedication to precision was beyond impressive.
I walked down the hill to see the Tomb from below and caught a beautiful view of Washington D.C., complete with the Capitol and Washington Monument. I glanced at the clock on my phone. I’d been here for hours. And I was nearly late for my tour of the Pentagon. As I rushed back to the metro station, walking as fast as I could past row after row of graves, I thought of how ironic it was that after being so moved by Arlington National Cemetery, I was now headed to the place where the orders of war are given, the place that determined the fate of every grave I had just visited.