TODAY   |  May 25, 2013

Keeping vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Among the most revered posts in the army is that of the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Just a handful of soldiers have earned the honor of keeping vigil, and it’s a watch that has remained unbroken since 1926. TODAY’s Erica Hill reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> god. near the center of this sprawling cemetery some of america's most hallowed ground is an especially revered spot high atop a hill where 24 hours a day for the past 87 years, a solemn watch has been maintained. a careful march repeated. to guard and honor those known as the inscription on the tomb reads but to god.

>> the ceremony that you are about to witness is the changing of the guard . in keeping with the dignity of this ceremony, it is requested that everyone remain silent and standing.

>> since 1946 , that honor has been the work of elite members of the old guard. the army's third infantry regimen. every movement is precise. every element of the walk carefully planned. 21 purposeful steps. pauses lasting 21 seconds . a nod to the military's highest honor, the 21 gun salute .

>> multiple times i wonder who they were and what they did. what their family went through. it's one thing for a soldier to give up his life for his country and another to be unknown.

>> these soldiers volunteer to guard the tomb but must first pass a gruelling two-week trial. just 10% of those soldiers move onto official training which can take as long as nine months. much of their training centers on the history of arlington and of those laid to rest here.

>> what are three quotes from the memorial amphitheater .

>> when we assume the soldier we do not lay aside the citizen.

>> each shift is 24 hours and when they're not on the plaza, they are constantly prepping for their next walk and help fellow tomb guards pass inspection shining shoes, making sure nothing is out of place. this sergeant earned his badge just over a year ago. like many americans, first experienced the solemn ceremony years before.

>> did you think it would be you one day?

>> i had no idea. i love talking to eighth grade groups are when they come here. i get to tell them what changing of the guard is really about.

>> for 29 men that guard the unknown, this is about honor, service, and gratitude.

>> i think it's important for all families to know that if their son or daughter goes away into war, no matter what, we will still always protect them and guard them.

>> they paid the ultimate sacrifice and then some. and they deserve, you know, the utmost respect. we're not here to please the crowds or put on a show. everything we do to a high standard is for them.