By BRENNA GRITEMAN
When he was about 10, Bob Weinberg’s family took a summer vacation to Washington, D.C., where they visited Arlington National Cemetery.
As the family witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Weinberg’s dad leaned over to his young son and remarked how neat it would be if he grew up to become one of the keepers of the most revered burial tomb in America.
Ten years later — after Weinberg had spent three months spit-shining his shoes, setting his uniform to Army specifications (within a 32nd of an inch) and mastering a perfectly stiff walk in 21-second beats — Weinberg’s parents made the trek from New Bremen to D.C. to watch their son keep watch over the famous tomb.
Like all the tomb guards who came before and after him, Weinberg guarded the tomb through all weather and seasons.
He recalls peeling off his sweat-soaked uniform after his summertime shifts; and remembers park officers swiftly shoveling snow as the guards on duty performed their paces.
In 1970, Weinberg’s tenure as a sentinel corresponded with the emergence of the 17-year cicadas, and park officers were charged with frantically sweeping piles of insects off of the mat that the guards marched on — “because 42 seconds later, he’s (the tomb guard) coming back down the mat.”
Since the tomb guards’ watch began in 1926, Weinberg said, weather has never once halted their 24/7 duty. As Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast in fall 2012, President Barack Obama gave the guards permission to leave their post. The presidential offer was declined.
Nearly five decades after he guarded the tomb, “When the weather is really bad, my first thought when I wake up in the morning is, ‘I wonder who’s walking,'” Weinberg said.
Weinberg was drafted into the Army on Sept. 11, 1969, at the “height of Vietnam.” He was sent to “The Old Guard,” also known as the U.S. Honor Guard Co., whose No. 1 job is to protect the president.
Only members of the Honor Guard can become tomb sentinels, and upon arriving in D.C., Weinberg knew straight away that he wanted to pursue that post.
“Being there, I just wanted to try out to be a tomb guard,” he said. “To me, there’s no more hallowed ground than Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Trainees must pass a series of performance, uniform and knowledge tests, including a 200-question exam on the history of the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery. Over 30 pages of history on the subject must be recited verbatim, punctuation included.
Weinberg said the toughest bit to master, however, is the sentinel’s stiff walk; neither his shoulders nor his head are supposed to move. The sentinel must cross a 63-foot rubber mat in exactly 21 steps, turn and face the tomb for 21 seconds, turn again, and pause an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. At the tomb, the 21 is symbolic of the 21-gun salute, the highest salute accorded to dignitaries in military and state ceremonies.
More difficult still is perfecting the timing of the changing of the guard, in which all three sentinels on the plaza move as one.
Weinberg said new tomb guards are assigned late-night or early-morning shifts, when the crowds at Arlington National Cemetery are smaller. Eventually, the timing becomes second nature and the guard can begin to take in his or her surroundings a little more.
An experienced or former sentinel, however, can easily spot a new tomb guard, based on their intense focus on keeping pace.
A tomb guard spends a great deal of time and attention on his uniform.
“Getting dressed is an event,” Weinberg said. It is a two-person job, as one sentinel essentially dresses another for their shift. This ensures that the guard’s pants remain perfectly pressed, and no wrinkles appear in his shirt. The hat is placed on the sentinel’s head, as raising his own arms to do so might cause his shirt to come untucked.
Weinberg served as tomb sentinel and commander of the relief from September 1970 to July 1971.
He then returned to Ohio and worked in manufacturing for 30 years. He now lives in Findlay and owns a construction business specializing in kitchen and bath remodeling, along with a property management company.
He is also president of Flag City Honor Flight.
In his semi-retirement, Weinberg regularly gives speeches about his experience as a tomb guard. Audience members are often interested in the ceremonial procedures, but also tend to bring up the popular belief that former sentinels can never drink, smoke or swear — even in civilian life.
Weinberg said that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But he said the Tomb Guard Identification Badge — the least-awarded badge in the Army and the second-least-awarded in the U.S. military — is the only military badge that can be revoked.
Badges can and have been revoked for any action that brings disrespect to the tomb during the lifetime of the tomb guard. Weinberg said he and most other past sentinels measure all their activities on what will honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and those buried within.
“I live my life for that soldier, and for this badge. And I will tell you that most sentinels are the same way,” he said.
“I live my life in accordance with the honor of the tomb. That’s what you take with you.”
“An American soldier known but to God”
Information from the Society of the Honor Guard (tombguard.org), of which Findlay resident Bob Weinberg is a founding father.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is inscribed with the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Despite their anonymity, the soldiers buried there are shown reverence and a protection unlike any other in America.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in 1921 and represents all missing and unknown service members. It is the final resting place for unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
The remains of the Vietnam unknown soldier were exhumed on May 14, 1998. Using DNA testing, the remains were confirmed to belong to Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. It was decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam unknown would remain vacant, and that the crypt cover would bear the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”
Tomb guards, also known as sentinels, have been guarding the tomb since 1926. They serve 30-minute shifts during daytime summer hours, and their shifts extend to one hour in the winter.
During the hours Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public, tomb guards perform several changing of the guard and wreath-laying ceremonies.
“While on duty, the sentinel crosses a 63-foot rubber mat in exactly 21 steps. He then faces the tomb for 21 seconds, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps,” the tomb website explains. “The 21 is symbolic of the highest salute accorded to dignitaries in military and state ceremonies. The sentinel always bears his weapon away from the tomb.”
The guard may only speak or alter his “silent, measured tour of duty” if someone attempts to enter the restricted area around the tomb. But first, he will halt and bring his rifle to port arms.
Tomb guards are volunteers of the Honor Guard, also known as the Old Guard. The regiment performs ceremonial duties for the White House and Pentagon, and national memorials in the Washington, D.C., area.
Aside from the tomb guards, the Honor Guard includes the U.S. Army Drill Team, the U.S. Army Continental Color Guard, the U.S. Caisson Platoon, Presidential Salute Battery, Pershing’s Own, and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
A sentinel’s training consists of five tests over six to 12 months. Tests focus on outside performance, such as the weapons manual, ceremonial steps, cadence and orders; uniform preparation, including Army dress blues, shoes “spits” and brass and medals; and knowledge.
Knowledge tests on 35 pages of information on the history of the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery must be recited verbatim, including punctuation.
If a volunteer passes the tests, he is assigned as a trainee for an intense training period. If he fails, he is assigned back to his company.
Successful trainees are awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge, and are known by their peers as “badgeholder.” The badge is the least-awarded badge in the Army, and the second-least-awarded badge in the U.S. military, trailing only the Astronaut Badge.