For the first time in 84 years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had its first all-female guard change, the U.S. Army’s Old Guard announced.
It was a milestone for the famed memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, which pays tribute to the unidentified service members who died in U.S. conflicts and typically draws crowds of tourists.
The changing of the guard occurs when one Sentinel — the term for a soldier who stands watch at the tomb — takes over for another in a ceremony presided over by a relief commander. In one such ceremony last month, all three soldiers were female.
That particular guard change came just as Sergeant of the Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Chelsea Porterfield, the first woman to hold the position, was preparing to take her final walk, according to Patrick Roddy, commander of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard.
“It wasn’t anyone’s intent to ‘engineer’ this event, but we knew an event like this had significant meaning,” Roddy said in an interview with Task & Purpose. “So in honor of SFC Porterfield’s service, and at her request, the schedules were aligned for the first all-woman changing of the guard as part of her last walk.”
The tomb throughout history
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created in 1921 as a simple marble slab with the remains of one unidentified service member who died in World War I, according to Arlington National Cemetery.
The Army began guarding the tomb in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1937 that soldiers established a 24/7 presence at the memorial.
Soldiers who want to become Sentinels undergo extensive training in arms and uniform preparation and face several tests before becoming a tomb guard.
According to the Society of the Honor Guard, the guard is changed every half hour in the summer and every hour in the winter, and the watch continues regardless of the conditions outside. “In fact, it is considered an honor to walk the mat during inclement weather,” the society said.
Although Porterfield was the first female Sergeant of the Guard, one of the more senior positions in the regiment, there have been other female Sentinels throughout history.