Go Behind the Scenes to See What It Takes to Guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

(Photo courtesy of 3rd Infantry Regiment/U.S. Army)

In most jobs, making one mistake would be no big deal. For the members of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) who stand watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one mistake might seem like the end of the world.

"It was a hot summer day in Arlington National Cemetery," Ethan Morse said in a video from a new series by AARP. "I was now a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I gave my weapon for the weapons inspection, and as soon as he took it, I could tell that something was wrong. I had just committed one of the biggest mistakes on the most hallowed ground in America."

Morse is a veteran and former guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but today, he is a filmmaker. He sat down with AARP, which is celebrating National Veterans and Military Families Month with its latest series about U.S. military veterans, "Reporting for Duty." Find out what his mistake was in the video at the end of the article.

Related: Learn about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Growing up on an upstate New York farm, Morse's dream was to make it big in the film industry, but a visit to Arlington National Cemetery changed his idea of what his future could hold. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he was overcome watching the tomb guards' perfection.

"I get emotional when I talk about it, because it was something I'd never seen before in my life," the Army veteran said. "Especially not back on the farm."

In March 1921, Congress honored the sacrifices of World War I veterans who never came home. It decided to bring home the remains of one unidentified American soldier from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France and honor them forever in Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

After lying in state for two days in the Capitol Rotunda, the soldier was interred in the tomb on what then was called Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1921. President Warren G. Harding officiated the ceremony. Today it is a memorial for every unidentified service member and contains the remains of one unknown from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The unknown from the Vietnam War was later identified and moved out of the tomb.

The dedication ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921. (Library of Congress)

Tomb sentinels have guarded the tomb every hour of every day since 1948.

When the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Morse joined the Army, putting his Hollywood dreams on hold. At basic training, he was recruited to go to Arlington, but he didn't go directly to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He underwent rigorous training to perform the ceremonies expected of The Old Guard.

After more than a year of training and casket-bearing duty, Morse was finally selected to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Watch and listen as Morse describes the month of training that tomb sentinels undergo in preparation before they can walk the 21 steps behind the tomb. He also talks about the different platoons and elements that perform the ceremonies associated with burying America's fallen.

Finally, he talks about the "dos and don'ts" of visiting the tomb as well as guarding it -- and what happens when a guard fails an inspection.

When it came time for Morse to leave the military, he finally went to California and became the filmmaker he always wanted to be. One of his productions was a documentary series about the lives and mindsets of those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

AARP provides veterans with free resources, important information, timely programming and access to discounts to meet their unique needs on family caregiving, fraud/scams, work and jobs, and accessing military service benefits. For information on these free resources and more, visit www.AARP.org/Veterans.

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