ARLINGTON, Va. — The federal government is closed and the snow-covered roads are quiet here, but the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are braving the elements.
"These guys want to be here, they work hard to stay here," says Sergeant of the Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Tanner Welch. "The guys in Afghanistan they can't stop because of snow. Guys in the mountains of Korea didn't stop because it was snowing."
For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since 1937, in all kinds of weather, men guard the resting place of three unnamed servicemembers in Arlington National Cemetery. The guards are handpicked members of the the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard."
"When you are out there you know that no matter how miserable the weather makes you, the people on the ground, they all suffered way worse than we are experiencing in the 30 minutes or hour we are out there," said Spc. John Arriaga, 23, of San Antonio, Texas. Arriaga has served as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown for a little over a year.
"Right when you cross the threshold of the chains — it's like nothing else even matters," Arriaga says. "It is just 21 steps, 21 seconds — you and the three unknowns. It's a feeling I can't even explain."
The safety of the guards is important, Welch says. Today, amid a winter storm that has dumped several inches of snow on the nation's capital, the guards will don an overcoat, a warmer hat and warmer gloves than the standard uniform. Other than that, it's business as usual.
"The accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the soldier is never put at risk," the guard's website states. "The tomb guards have contingencies that are ready to be executed IF the weather conditions ever place the soldiers at risk of injury or death — such as lightning, high winds, etc."
"We do modify slightly for weather when it becomes a major safety concern — lightning, snow, cold and frostbite, heat and heat stroke," Welch says. "But for 76 years now we have had ample opportunity to figure out how we are going to handle these conditions. We are always ready."
The all-volunteer guards focus on the sacrifice of the unknown soldiers they are honoring instead of the bitter cold.
"These unknowns — we don't even have their names and they gave everything for their country," says Sgt. Thomas Ozio, 22, of Dayton, Ohio. "So I give everything I can to these unknowns."
"I woke up and it was pretty cold," Ozio says with a laugh. "But I looked out my window and thought about how everybody else is off in the government. We are the few going into work and doing what we do best."