It was the final changing of the guard for Sgt. First Class Chelsea Porterfield.
She was completing 20 months of service as the first female Sergeant of the Guard, running the day-to-day operations of the unit that for 84 years has stood watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Early on Sept. 29, before the cemetery opened to the public, Sergeant Porterfield walked in slow, perfectly synchronized step with two white-gloved women clutching M14 rifles fitted with bayonets.
The changing of the guard, a hallowed military tradition, has transfixed visitors to the Washington, D.C., area for decades. But this was the first time it had been carried out by three women, whose schedules happened to align that morning, according to a military spokesman.
The image of three women upholding a sacred ritual underscored how visible women have become in the military, and moved fellow soldiers, veterans and military historians.
“I never thought I would see it happen in my lifetime,” said First Lt. Ruth Robinson, a friend of Sergeant Porterfield, who attended the ceremony.
Lieutenant Robinson, 33, was a Tomb Guard from 2015 and 2017, and was the only woman in the unit at the time.
“To see not only one female, but to see three just feels really astounding,” she said.
The tomb was created in 1921 as the final resting place for the unidentified remains of a soldier who was killed in World War I. At the time, it was imagined “as a site that would create the sense of the entire country as one group mourning and honoring sacrifice,” said Micki McElya, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.”
In 1937, the military installed a 24-hour post at the tomb. Since then, soldiers have guarded the tomb in shifts that last 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the time of year.
Women were not allowed to volunteer for the Tomb Guard Platoon until 1994, according to the Society of the Honor Guard, an organization that works to preserve the history of the site. From 1996 to 1998, three women earned the Tomb Guard Identification Badge.
None earned the badge again until 2015, when Lieutenant Robinson began her post as part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit, which is known as the Old Guard and includes the Tomb Guard.
The Tomb Guard’s duties are highly respected, but grueling.
The soldiers must be in “superb physical condition” and have an unblemished military record, according to Arlington National Cemetery. Before they can qualify, soldiers must memorize a 17-page document detailing the cemetery’s history and recite it verbatim to their training officer, Lieutenant Robinson said.
During the changing of the guard, a sergeant or corporal walks to the plaza with another guard to relieve the soldier in an elaborate ceremony that takes place in blizzards, rainstorms and heat waves.
Guards can be relieved only if remaining at the tomb would put their lives at risk, said Major Shahin Uddin, a spokesman for the infantry.
During the ceremony last week, Sergeant Porterfield laid roses at the tomb, where the remains of servicemen from World War II and the Korean War are buried in crypts next to the white marble sarcophagus that contains the remains of the unidentified World War I soldier. The tomb also includes an empty crypt that once held the remains of an Air Force pilot who was killed in the Vietnam War but was identified in 1998 through DNA.
In the cemetery itself, there are 4,723 unknown soldiers who died in wars dating to the Civil War, Lieutenant Robinson said.
Sergeant Porterfield declined to comment. Major Uddin said the Army could not release the names of the soldiers who walked with her because of the solemnity of their duty.
“They really do their best to deflect attention and remain unknown because what they’re doing is sacred,” he said.
Lieutenant Robinson said that was a general sentiment among the soldiers who served at the tomb.
“It’s been four years now since my last walk, and I’m now just getting more comfortable talking about it,” she said. “You never want it to be about you. You want it to be about the unknowns.”
The images of the three female soldiers were a “visual marker” of the often unrecognized sacrifices that women and other marginalized people in the United States have made for the military, Professor McElya said.
“Women have served either officially or unofficially in every single war this country has ever waged, but they have never been drafted,” she said. “So if we want to talk about sacrifice and honor, women have done that because they wanted to.”
The changing of the guard was also an important moment in military history, one that showed that women are serving in “the most revered positions,” said Kara Dixon Vuic, a professor of war, conflict and society in 20th-century America at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
“These are the rituals that the nation holds dear,” she said. “Some might call it militaristic and some might say it represents the best of us. But to have women at the heart of it, whatever your perspective is, is important because it shows that women are at the heart of these debates now.”
Sergeant Porterfield, who plans to retire from the Army next year after 20 years of service, will not be succeeded by another woman. Two women — the soldiers who walked with Sergeant Porterfield — remain in the Tomb Guard Platoon, Major Uddin said.
So as momentous as her final changing of the guard was, it was also unique, Professor McElya said.
“It’s not going to happen again anytime soon,” she said.
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