In early June, my daughter, her family, and I went to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She lives near there and has been to the cemetery several times with friends and family who visit. She had tips on where we should stand as we watched: on the right section of the steps as we faced the Tomb Guard Sentinel who paced back and forth, heels clicking with each turn, rifle on his shoulder. She had to whisper to tell us her reasoning: one of the most interesting things to see is when an accompanying sentinel, called the, walks ahead of the oncoming sentinel, pausing as they enter from the right. Usually, the commander turns sharply, faces the sentinel, and conducts a minutes-long inspection of the sentinel’s rifle and uniform.
We stood quietly because respect for the ceremony dictates silence, a time when the only sounds we heard were those of the sentinel’s clicking heels, bird’s tweeting, and distant traffic. When the sentinel suddenly left his pacing, walked into a small canvas booth on the left of the tomb, and turned his back to the crowd, my daughter raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
“I have never seen this before,” she whispered.
The sentinel appeared to be doing something with his hands. Shortly afterward, he ceremoniously picked up his rifle with a click-click-click and resumed his steps, heel to toe, back and forth. The appointed half-hour moment passed by; but shortly afterward, we saw the commander and the oncoming sentinel approach with sharp, military-style movements. The commander strode to the front of those of us gathered to watch. As meticulously as he walked, I could not help but notice that he had scraped the concrete with his boot as he walked to the front of the crowd, welcomed us, and reminded us to be silent. He turned and strode toward the oncoming sentinel, and I noticed he again scraped his boot as he walked. I thought he must have had a leg problem, but then my daughter leaned over and said, “Pay attention to that heel drag.”
The commander inspected the sentinel’s rifle very briefly, not at all like my daughter said he would; and then he inspected the uniform briskly by looking at him from head to toe, marching to his back, and repeating the visual inspection.
“They seem to be in a hurry,” she said. “Usually, there is a white-glove inspection of the rifle.”
She turned up her palms, questioning the omission.
Then the two sentinels faced each other, twirled their rifles around a bit, and then changed places.
The commander thanked us for coming and strode out with the departing sentinel. The crowd dispersed.
“Did you see the disabled soldier in the wheelchair?” my daughter asked.
Yes, we had noticed the man because he and his family had come into the area just before us, and a woman had pushed him near us during the ceremony. He had only one leg, his other leg was bandaged, and scars pocked his face. He wore a jacket decorated with Army patches, and a backpack with Army emblems hung off the back of the wheelchair.
“I think I know what happened,” my daughter said. “The first sentinel entered the booth to communicate with the oncoming sentinel and commander to let them know a disabled veteran was here. The heel drag is the way they acknowledged him. ‘We see you,’ they said to him.”
As we left, she looked on her cellphone’s Internet site and confirmed what she had once heard was true.
So, unknown to us at the time, we had witnessed a unique moment, one in which one set of soldiers “saluted” a fellow soldier in a quiet, rather secret, manner. Only when looking back did we realize how fortunate we had been to witness the exchange. The moment made us respect even more the strong bonds of comradeship that soldiers develop as they risk their lives in service to our country.
Since its inception in 1921, the ceremony is one of the most dignified events visitors can witness. It has many meaningful customs and a few new practices, such as the use of telephones and implementing the heel drag.
I wish I had already known about that special type of “salute” as it happened because I would have looked at the face of the disabled soldier. I’ll bet he was smiling.
For those who have never visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, several videos exist on Youtube.com. To read about the heel-dragging custom, go to Facebook and type in “heel drag” and “Southeast Florida Honor Flight.”