For Sgt. First Class Chelsea Porterfield, this was the last time she would be stepping down as a soldier.
The first female Sergeant of the Guard, she was completing a 20-month term as the unit’s day-to-day operations manager at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns.
Sergeant Porterfield and two white-gloved women holding M14 rifles fitted with bayonets walked in slow, perfect step early on Sept. 29 before the cemetery opened to the public.
Visitors to the Washington, D.C., area have been captivated by the changing of the guard for decades. An army spokesperson said it had been done once before, but it had never been done by three women who happened to be in town at the same time.
As a result of the image of three women upholding a sacred ritual, other soldiers, veterans, and military historians were moved.
“I never thought I’d see it happen in my lifetime,” said First Lt. Ruth Robinson, a friend of Sergeant Porterfield, who was present at the ceremony.
During her time as a Tomb Guard, Lieutenant Robinson was the only female member of the unit. Her jaw dropped when she realised there were three women in the room with her.
The tomb was constructed in 1921 to house the unidentified remains of a World War I soldier. A professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery” tells the New York Times that at the time it was envisioned “as a site that would create the sense of the entire country mourning and honouring sacrifice.”
The military set up a post at the tomb in 1937, which was manned 24 hours a day. The tomb has been guarded by soldiers since then, with shifts lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the season.
According to the Society of the Honor Guard, an organisation that works to preserve the history of the site, women were not allowed to volunteer for the Tomb Guard Platoon until 1994. Three women obtained the Tomb Guard Identification Badge between 1996 and 1998.
Lieutenant Robinson, a member of the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit, the Old Guard, which includes the Tomb Guard, was the first to receive the badge in 2015.
The duties of the Tomb Guard are well-respected, but they are also taxing.”Superb physical condition” and a clean military record are required, according to Arlington National Cemetery. A 17-page document detailing the history of the cemetery must be memorised and recited verbatim by soldiers before they can qualify, Lieutenant Robinson said.
An elaborate ceremony takes place during the changing of the guard when a sergeant or corporal walks to the plaza with another guard to replace the soldier.
According to Major Shahin Uddin, an infantry spokesman, guards can only be relieved if staying at the tomb would put their lives in danger.
When Sergeant Porterfield attended the ceremony last week, he laid roses at the tomb, which contains the remains of WWII and Korean War servicemen in crypts alongside the white marble sarcophagus that holds the remains of the unidentified World War I soldier. Additionally, the tomb includes an empty crypt that once contained the remains of an Air Force pilot who was killed in the Vietnam War but was identified through DNA in 1998.
According to Lieutenant Robinson, there are 4,723 unknown soldiers buried in the cemetery who died in conflicts dating back to the American Civil War.
No comment was made by Sergeant Porterfield at this time. Solemnity of duty prevented Major Uddin from disclosing the names of the soldiers she accompanied.
Because what they’re doing is sacred, “they really do their best to deflect attention and remain unknown,” he said.
They were all in agreement on this point, according to Lieutenant Robinson.
In the four years since her last walk, “I’m starting to feel more comfortable talking about it,” she said. The focus should never be on you. “You want it to be about the unknowns,” you say.
“Visual markers” of the sacrifices made by women and other marginalised groups in the United States’ military, Professor McElya said of the images of the three female soldiers.
For every war this country has fought, “women have served either officially or unofficially but have never been drafted,” she said. When discussing sacrifice and honour, “women have done that because they wanted to,” he says.
According to Kara Dixon Vuic, a professor of war, conflict, and society in twentieth-century America at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, “the most revered positions” were being filled by women.
According to her, these are “the rituals that the country holds dear.” In the eyes of some, it is militaristic, while in the eyes of others, it represents the best of us. As long as there are women involved, “it is important because it shows that women are at the heart of these debates now,” he said.
Upon her retirement next year after 20 years of service, Sergeant Porterfield will not be succeeded by a female officer. According to Major Uddin, the two female soldiers who accompanied Sergeant Porterfield on his walk are still serving in the Tomb Guard Platoon.
Professor McElya noted that while her final changing of the guard was significant, it was also one-of-a-kind.