Three soldiers made history during a guard change at Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier last month. In the 84 years since the first sentries stood watch over the Tomb, there had never been an all-female guard change—until now.
The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is known as the “Old Guard,” oversees the guarding of the tomb and announced the historic event Oct. 1 via Twitter.
“For the first time in the 84-year-vigil, on the 30,770th day of continuous guarding, an all-female guard change occurred with the 38th Sergeant of the Guard,” the Old Guard wrote.
Sgt. First Class Chelsea Porterfield and two other female guards (who remain unnamed) were the Tomb Guards, also called Sentinels, involved in the changing of the guard. It was Sergeant Porterfield’s final time to partake in the ceremony after 20 months of serving as the first-ever female Sergeant of the Guard. As she took her final purposeful, synchronized steps at the Tomb, M14 rifle in white-gloved hand, Sergeant Porterfield and her two fellow soldiers made history once again.
“It wasn’t anyone’s intent to ‘engineer’ this event, but we knew an event like this had significant meaning,” commander of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment Patrick Roddy said. “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.”
Having a woman as a Tomb Guard at all is still a rare occurrence. Only a handful of women have earned the honor of guarding the tomb since women were first allowed to volunteer for the position in 1994. Only three were awarded the coveted Tomb Guard Identification Badge from 1996 to 1998, and it didn’t happen again until 2015 when First Lt. Ruth Robinson earned it.
Lieutenant Robinson is a friend of Sergeant Portfield and attended last month’s historic ceremony.
“I never thought I would see it happen in my lifetime,” she said. “To see not only one female, but three, just feels really astounding,”
Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery is a sacred, honorable duty, and very few of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment earn the right to become a Sentinel. Those who wish to undertake the challenge must check dozens of highly specific boxes and complete several grueling stages of training to even have a chance at taking up the mantle.
Prospective Tomb Guards must be within a certain height (between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for men or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for women), be in “superb physical condition,” complete an interview and two-week trial, and recite seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history verbatim, according to Arlington National Cemetery—and that’s just one of many steps.
The Tomb has stood on a hill overlooking Washington D.C. since 1921, and it houses the remains of one of America’s unknown World War I soldiers. Several other Unknowns from later wars were added in 1958 and 1984. The Tomb has been guarded 24/7 since 1937, no matter the time, weather, or outside events.
The changing of the guard, which is open to the public during Arlington Cemetery’s visiting hours, takes place every hour or half-hour depending on the time of year. The process is a delicate, deliberate, and slow one, and every part has a purpose. For instance, the number 21 symbolizes the 21-gun salute, which is the highest military honor that can be bestowed—the on-duty Tomb Guard parallels this by marching 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, facing east for 21 seconds, turning north for another 21, and then taking the 21 steps back before repeating the process again.
See a changing of the guard here (it’s worth the watch!):
The service that the Tomb Guards perform is a revered and sacred one, and though the three women who took part in the ceremony last month helped to make history in their own way they declined to comment on it.
“They really do their best to deflect attention and remain unknown because what they’re doing is sacred,” spokesman for the infantry Major Shahin Uddin said.
“It’s been four years now since my last walk, and I’m now just getting more comfortable talking about it,” Robinson said of her own experiences as a Sentinel. “You never want it to be about you. You want it to be about the unknowns.”
“We commemorate the achievements of these trail-blazing Tomb Guards,” the Old Guard tweeted. “While this historic event may be a first, it is not the last. With diversity in our ranks, race, gender, or any characteristics will never hinder, but only enhance the execution of our sacred mission.”