The Unknowns, a short story
(for Veterans Day, 2011)
21 steps. Pause for 21 seconds. Turn, place the M14 away from the tomb, 21 steps.
The soldier had it down. He had been accepted to the Tomb Guard and become one of the few. Perfect score on the test, he had gone through the training. And now he marched for two hours. It is was his honor. He was a good soldier. Some had questioned him when he applied. Wouldn’t it get dull, monotonous, routine? Routine, yes, but never dull. No one left this place with dry eyes. And though it was routine, he never lost focus. And now he had the night watch. The cemetery was closed and not even a visitor would come by.
63 feet one way, 63 feet back. Click. Click. Click.
Lt. Jacob Smith performed his duties well. Of course, at this post, he was just Jacob Smith, no rank. No one should outrank the unknowns. He had done day shifts before. He had marched in rain and shine and snow. He had even heard of the time when Westboro Baptist attempted to protest. How dare they! He himself was a good Christian man, but the people from Westboro? That would desecrate this site.
Smith didn’t wear a watch, that wasn’t part of the uniform. But he knew it was about 11 oclock. His shift ended at midnight.
Smith heard the noise and then felt the pain, but he didn’t understand it. He grimaced but kept marching.
He felt the jolt in his legs but had to keep marching.
BANG! He couldn’t anymore, he fell to the ground. 24/7 since 1937. He had to get up. Had to keep going.
His replacement quickly came over to him. Smith said, “Post and orders remain as directed.” The reply came as usual, “Orders acknowledged,” but the soldier added, “Help is on the way.”
It had hit the news already. At 11:11:11 on November 11th, 2011, a Tomb Guard had been killed. There was no break in the guard as all had followed protocol – assure help first and quick, then take over.
The shooter hadn’t been caught. The bullets were M14, but didn’t match any on record – it was not another Guard. Whoever had done this was smart. No one would say it, but most people knew – this was terrorism, at the highest level.
The Guards knew their duties. They had been offered an out, but no one accepted. No one would be a coward.
Mark Hamilton took his post three days later. No rank. 21 steps. Even if he were shot, he would keep marching until someone took his post. Besides, it was daylight now. There were more soldiers now for security. Nothing could –
BOOM! Hamilton felt the ground shake, kept his gaze and his step but searched for the origin. He saw it. 3 soldiers were down. The tomb itself was still standing and he could still march.
BOOM! His legs gave out. He couldn’t march. He tried but couldn’t move. He had failed. He would go down as the one who stopped an unending march dating back to 1937. Forgive me, he thought.
People all around were confused. Was the terrorist one of them? The soldier was down. Someone call 911. He couldn’t march, what to do?
Kyle Roberts looked around him. He had no military training. But there were no other soldiers around. He crossed the line and ran over to Hamilton. He leaned down and said, “Sir, I can march.”
Hamilton wondered if it was allowed. A civilian? “Can you march with me?”
Kyle Roberts knew enough to know the proper response, he had seen this several times. “Orders acknowledged.”
He lifted the man up and they walked side by side. It was only about two minutes before ambulances and other soldiers arrived. He was quickly relieved, as they cleared the cemetery of civilians.
This time, they could trace the bombs and the threat was easily dealt with. An American Al-Queda cell. They had intended to get to the tomb itself, destroy the most holy monument of America.
Kyle Roberts, though he had only walked the path for two minutes, became a hero, the pure example of the American spirit. Hamilton recovered and both were present for Smith’s funeral in the cemetery. Both received medals and awards, and Hamilton received promotions for valor in the line of duty. They both met the President and he gave speeches about how they were dedicated, about how the Tomb of the Unknown would always be protected because of faithful soldiers, and how America was built on the people buried there.
Kyle Roberts was immediately allowed into the infantry, trained, and in a great ceremony, marched again, this time as an army officer. Not that rank matters, because all men are created equal, and thanks to our veterans, who make this a reality.