ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY — Sgt. Shane Vincent stood guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and silently counted out 21 seconds.

His uniform was impeccably blue, his shoes sterling black, his gloves spotless white. A rifle rested on his right shoulder, pointed away from the tomb and toward

the crowd.

Nov. 30 was unseasonably warm for Arlington, Va. A large crowd gathered on the steps of Memorial Amphitheater, basking in the sun, waiting for the 1 p.m. changing of the guard. Vincent’s family and friends snapped photos from the railing around the plaza. Two dozen off-duty tomb guards stood beyond, silently keeping vigil.

Vincent fixed his gaze on the horizon behind the tomb: the hill at Arlington National Cemetery, falling away toward the Potomac River and, beyond it, the U.S. Capitol.

Vincent had guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for 25 months. He guarded it day and night, during summer and winter. He guarded it for 23 consecutive hours during Hurricane Sandy.

This walk, his 1,001st, would be his last.

Vincent clicked his heels and turned, shifting his rifle from his right shoulder to his left. He took 21 carefully placed steps across the plaza. He stopped, clicked his heels, turned toward the tomb and clicked them again. He stood, counting 21 seconds, and repeated the ritual again and again.

“I was trying to think of what I was going to say,” he said after it was all over, after he stood before his family and fellow guards, after he tried to speak but choked back tears.

“Honestly, that didn’t work out too well.”

Sgt. Vincent

A 23-year-old Casper native, Vincent joined the Army at 19. He joined to shape up, to offer his parents some respite, to make them proud.

“Let’s just say he was a handful,” said his mother, Diane Vincent, as the room around her broke out in laughter.

“Two handfuls.”

Young Shane Vincent had always dreamt of being in the military. As a boy, he would steal away to the basement to look at his dad’s old Air Force uniform. He and his friends ran reconnaissance missions over the neighbor’s fence.

“They never found out,” Vincent said. “We were good at our job.”

But as a teenager, Vincent experimented with drugs, alcohol, vandalism and other trouble. A little bit of everything, he said, without falling over the edge. The military was a way out.

“I was putting my family through a lot of hard times. I decided I was going to do something to fix that. They didn’t deserve to go through that because of my selfishness,” Vincent said.

He joined the Army with the intention of going to Iraq. Instead, even before basic training he was offered the opportunity to guard one of the nation’s most hallowed military shrines.

To serve in the guard, one must score at least a 110 out of 160 on the Army’s aptitude test. He must be at least 5 feet, 10 inches tall and have a clean military record.

Guards are drilled in the seven types of ceremonies conducted at the tomb. They must keep their uniforms in pristine condition. They must learn verbatim 35 pages of history, including punctuation, regarding the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery. Failure to say “period” at the end of a sentence is enough to prevent a candidate from passing the test.

Vincent spent eight months training for the guard. He had just two more tests to pass. But as a 20-year-old private, Vincent said his mind wasn’t focused. He didn’t make it.

He went to Alpha Company and served a year on the Spirit of America, a group of soldiers that travel the country promoting the Army. But he wanted to return to the tomb.

“I knew what it meant and what a huge opportunity it was. I knew it was an opportunity I would never get again,” Vincent said. “I couldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my family, my wife, my mom and dad.”

In 2010, he returned to the tomb. After three months of training, he became a tomb guard.

High honor

There are few military honors greater than guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Only 610 people have received the Tomb Guard Identification Badge, the second-least awarded badge in the military behind only the Astronaut Badge.

He is the only person from Wyoming to have received the badge. His number: 588.

Tomb guards are members of the Old Guard, the official U.S. honor guard unit that belongs to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. The 3rd is the oldest active in-service military unit in the country, performing combat missions and ceremonial functions. It is the “Escort to the President” and also conducts ceremonies at the White House, Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, among others.

Tomb guards live by the 99-word Sentinel’s creed. They promise to guard the unknowns with the utmost dignity and perseverance.

“My standard,” they promise the deceased, “will remain perfection.”

A soldier has continuously guarded the tomb since 1926. There are no breaks for extreme weather or even a national emergency. Tomb guards did not leave their posts during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

On duty, a guard holds his rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb and toward the crowd to show that he is protecting the tomb. The 21-step walk and 21 seconds of stillness are meant to symbolize the 21-gun salute.

The tomb itself sits in a small plaza outside Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. It is a simple marble structure, bearing only an inscription that reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” A soldier from World War I lies beneath. Before it are three crypts, one for World War II, one for the Korean War and one for Vietnam.

Its origins trace to Europe. Great Britain lost nearly 900,000 soldiers in World War I, France nearly 1.4 million. On Armistice Day in 1920, the two countries each laid an unknown soldier to rest.

The United States, which lost 116,000 soldiers, followed a year later. At a ceremony in Chalon, France, a decorated sergeant injured in the war was presented with four caskets, each draped in an American flag and bearing the remains of an unknown soldier. He selected one and it was transported home. The casket lay in state for one day at the U.S. Capitol before being buried in an elaborate ceremony at Arlington.

Similar ceremonies were performed for soldiers killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Today, the Vietnam War crypt is empty. The unknown soldier who was buried there was later identified and reburied in his home state of Missouri.

There are no more unknown soldiers from the country’s more recent military conflicts. DNA testing makes it possible to identify the remains of the deceased.

Life of a tomb guard

The guard comprises three separate reliefs. On duty, a relief guards the tomb for a 24-hour shift, guards rotating through every hour. After one day on, they get one day off. Once they have worked five days on, they get four days off.

The hours are not easy for Vincent’s wife, Casper native Courtney Vincent. He has been stationed at the tomb their entire married life. He has not been home to Casper in more than a year.

“It is important to remember that what Shane does is not for Shane,” Courtney said. “It’s for a much higher cause.”

In his 25 months, Vincent walked the mat in front of the tomb in cold weather and hot. He completed countless vigils, standing guard over the tomb by himself for 12 hours at a time when the cemetery is closed.

“You’re out there by yourself, you and the unknowns,” he said. “A big one out there is people always make up scenarios. What if zombies happen?”

He volunteered to guard the tomb during Hurricane Sandy, when the cemetery was closed. He guarded for 23 hours in wind a lot like Casper’s, with members of his relief helping to keep him going. His commander had to drag him off duty so the cemetery could open and normal guard duties could resume.

He and Courtney are moving to Fort Carson, Colo. He will be an infantryman now and is looking forward to the new mission.

But moving on is bittersweet. To be a tomb guard is to be a member of a brotherhood, he said. Recently, he attended the tomb guards’ 2012 reunion, a biannual gathering of guards that go back as far as the 1940s. The old guards still have a passion for the tomb.

Vincent feels the same way. Hopefully, he has set a high standard for those who follow him.

The last walk

Vincent’s eyes were still fixed on the horizon when a sergeant appeared at the far end of the plaza. He strode slowly, methodically to the front of the tomb. Proper decorum requires silence during the changing of the guard ceremony, the sergeant told the crowd.

A third guard appeared, wearing the same immaculate blue uniform. On his left shoulder he carried a rifle identical to Vincent’s.

The sergeant turned and saluted the tomb. With the same careful steps, he walked to the new soldier and inspected his rifle, flipping it vertically, then horizontally, checking it from side to side.

Vincent turned, clicked his heels and walked away from the approaching guards.

“Guards halt,” the sergeant barked. Each man clicked his heels in unison.

Marcelo Vincent watched his son complete the changing of the guard ceremony for the last time, tears forming behind his glasses. He never expected his son to join the military, never knew that his own service had made such an impact.

“To say I’m proud is an understatement,” Marcelo said.

Vincent and his relief turned on the sergeant’s orders and faced each other with a click of their heels.

“On your orders,” the sergeant said.

“As ordered, remain as directed,” Vincent told the relief.

“Orders acknowledged,” the relief said.

After the ceremony, Vincent returned to the tomb without his weapon. Courtney met him there and presented him with four roses. Before laying a flower at each of the crypts, Vincent made his last salute.

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