This was the last time Sgt. First Class Chelsea Porterfield would leave the military.
She had served for 20 months as the unit’s day-to-day operations manager at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. She was the first female Sergeant of the Guard.
Hallowed Changing of the Guard Gets an All-Female Cast at Arlington
Early on September 29, before the cemetery opened to the public, Sergeant Porterfield and two white-gloved women carrying M14 rifles equipped with bayonets walked in slow, precise step.
The changing of the guard has long held the attention of visitors to the Washington, D.C., area. According to a representative for the army, it has been done before, but never by three women who just so happened to be in town at the same time.
Other troops, veterans, and military historians were affected by the sight of three women upholding a hallowed tradition.
Sergeant Porterfield’s buddy First Lt. Ruth Robinson, who attended the event, stated, “I never believed I’d see it happen in my lifetime.”
Lieutenant Robinson was the only woman in the group when she served as a Tomb Guard. When she realised there were three other women in the room with her, she was astounded.
To contain the unidentified remains of a World War I soldier, the tomb was built in 1921. According to the New York Times, at the time, it was intended “as a site that would create the sense of the entire country mourning and honouring sacrifice,” according to a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.”
In 1937, the military erected a garrison at the grave that was staffed round-the-clock. Since then, troops have been stationed at the tomb to keep watch, with shifts lasting anything from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the time of year.
Women were not permitted to join the Tomb Guard Platoon until 1994, according to the Society of the Honor Guard, an organisation that aims to preserve the heritage of the location. Between 1996 and 1998, three women earned the Tomb Guard Identification Badge.
The first to get the badge in 2015 was Lieutenant Robinson, a member of the Old Guard, the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit, which also comprises the Tomb Guard.
Although Revered, the Responsibilities of the Tomb Guard are Extremely Demanding.
According to Arlington National Cemetery, applicants must be in “superb physical condition” and have no criminal records. Before a soldier to qualify, a 17-page paper outlining the cemetery’s history must be memorised and recited verbatim, according to Lieutenant Robinson.
When a sergeant or corporal travels to the plaza with another guard to take the place of the soldier, a lengthy ritual is performed.
Major Shahin Uddin, an infantry spokesman, said that guards may only be freed if continuing to defend the tomb would endanger their lives.
In addition to the unnamed World War I soldier’s bones in the white marble sarcophagus, the tomb also houses the remains of WWII and Korean War veterans in crypts.
When Sergeant Porterfield attended the ceremony last week, he left roses at the tomb. The tomb also features an empty vault that originally housed the remains of an Air Force pilot who died in the Vietnam War but whose identity was determined in 1998 through DNA.
There are 4,723 unidentified troops buried in the cemetery, according to Lieutenant Robinson, who lost their lives in wars that predate the American Civil War.
Sergeant Porterfield remained silent at this point. Major Uddin was unable to reveal the identities of the soldiers she was travelling with due to the solemnity of her duty.
They “truly do their best to avoid attention and remain unnoticed” because what they’re doing is sacred, he said.
They were all in Agreement, According to Lieutenant Robinson, on this Issue.
She said, “I’m starting to feel more comfortable talking about it,” four years after her last stroll. Never should the attention be on you. You say, “You want it to be about the unknowns.”
Professor McElya described the pictures of the three female soldiers as “visual markers” of the sacrifices made by women and other disadvantaged groups in the American military.
“Women have served either officially or unofficially in every war our country has fought, but they have never been drafted,” she remarked. He claims that when it comes to sacrifice and honour, “women have done that because they wanted to.”
The “most valued positions” were being held by women, according to Kara Dixon Vuic, a professor of war, conflict, and society in twentieth-century America at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
These are “the rituals that the country holds dear,” she claimed. Some people see it as military, while others see it as the finest of who we are. “It is essential because it indicates that women are at the core of these conversations now,” he said, adding that participation by women is crucial.
Sergeant Porterfield won’t be replaced by a female officer when she retires after 20 years of service the following year. The two female soldiers who followed Sergeant Porterfield on his trip are still active members of the Tomb Guard Platoon, according to Major Uddin.
While her final changing of the guard was significant, Professor McElya noted that it was also unique.