When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery marked its Centennial last year, the anniversary held special meaning for one Center for Homeland Defense and Security alum.
That’s because Jason Biermann (Master’s cohort 1305/1306) served as a Tomb Honor Guard for two tours in the early- to mid-1990s, an experience which he calls a “foundational” part of his life.
The Snohomish County, WA, senior policy advisor to the County Executive Officer, who previously served as Snohomish County Emergency Management Director, Biermann served as a Tomb Guard from March 1992 to September 1993, then took a break before returning to the Tomb Guard as an Assistant Relief Commander for a second tour of duty from April 1995 to June 1996.
The Tomb Guard is made up of soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard,” who stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day. Also known as “Sentinels,” the Tomb Guards are chosen for the prestigious post only after highly rigorous training and a demanding series of examinations.
According to the Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Tomb Guards “come from every state in the U.S. and every walk of life,” and are “forever bonded through their shared experience of service at the Tomb … a strong bond formed through an extremely demanding and humbling experience.”
Tomb Guards are “hand-picked and rigorously trained,” according to the website, and include both men and women, including those in their first Army unit and those who are longtime Army veterans.
Since 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has served as a sacred memorial site at the heart of Arlington National Cemetery. It has been the final resting place for one of America’s unidentified World War I service members since then, and two additional unknown service members’ graves were added in 1958 and 1984.
According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, the Tomb “connects visitors with the legacy of the United States armed forces throughout our nation’s history” and “stands as a people’s memorial that inspires reflection on service, valor, sacrifice, and mourning.”
Biermann said his Tomb Guard service will forever be a part of him.
“It was a pretty incredible thing to represent people who sacrificed everything including their identities for our nation,” he said.
According to Biermann, a visit to Arlington National Cemetery while he was in the Army Reserve and a student at the University of Iowa in the late 1980s when he saw the famed changing of the guard piqued his interest in the Tomb Guard. “I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen,” he said.
So, Biermann said he decided to enlist in the active-duty military and volunteer for a two-week tryout for the Tomb Guard program with the 3rd Infantry, also known as the oldest continuous regiment in U.S. history dating back to 1784. Most applicants don’t make it through the tryout, he said, let alone the seven-month formal training program that follows, which weeds out as much as 95 percent of those who attempt it.
Biermann was one of the few who made it through the program and began his first tour in early 1992. By November that year, he had earned his Tomb Guard Identification badge, No. 388, underscoring the challenging accomplishment as one of fewer than 400 soldiers at the time to be so honored in the decades since the Tomb Guard’s inception.
He called his Tomb Guard service “extremely difficult work and an incredible challenge, especially the mental aspect of it,” noting that Tomb Guards work 24-hour shifts—alternating three days on followed by four days off—while wearing all-wool uniforms even in the Washington DC heat and humidity of summer, as well as in rain and snow, and at night.
In addition, as a Badge holder, Biermann was “more visible” and assigned to peak daytime hours when public visitors were present, adding to the pressure to perform the guard duties perfectly and refrain from smiles or any other acknowledgment.
Biermann noted that Line 6 from the famed Sentinel’s Creed poem, “my standard will remain perfection,” serves as the Tomb Guard’s central precept.
According to the Society of the Honor Guard website, the 99 words of the creed “captures the true meaning of their duty” and one will “often hear the words ‘Line 6’ proudly uttered by Tomb Guards as they converse with each other or with their chain of command.”
After his Tomb Guard tours, Biermann would be assigned to Fort Lewis, WA, as a squad leader, eventually retiring as a Command Sergeant Major after more than 28 years of military service in 2018.
While in the Army Reserve, Biermann worked as a firefighter and as the Teton County, WY, public health response coordinator and emergency management coordinator before starting at Snohomish County in 2009. He has also served as a FEMA instructor/facilitator since 2011.
Biermann compared the CHDS Master’s Program to his time as a Tomb Guard, calling it similarly “very demanding and very challenging mentally,” adding that he was “really impacted” by the CHDS professors. He graduated from the program in 2015.
His CHDS Master’s thesis (linked below) is entitled, “The Emergence of Organizational Fit: Applying Configuration Theory to the Snohomish County Emergency Operations Center” (2016).
While Biermann said he was unable to attend the official Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial on Nov. 11 last year due to Covid-19 restrictions, he was able to visit the Tomb earlier in the year while at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute Executive Academy.
The Sentinel’s Creed
My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance
my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise
and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence
to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day,
alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest
under my eternal vigilance.
– Simon 1971
Tomb Guard Q&A
Q: What is the biggest myth/secret about guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb Guards?
A: The myth that floats around on the internet is that Tomb Guards must make a lifelong commitment to never swearing or drinking. While a Badge can be revoked at any time for certain things (e.g., a felony conviction or court martial), Tomb Guards don’t commit to living overly restricted lives. The secret is that there are cameras monitoring the Tomb 24/7 and a hotline in the “Box” (the guard shack on the plaza) that rings a number of law enforcement agencies simultaneously. Someone foolish enough to try to get past the Guard on post would be videoed and met by lots of law enforcement officers very, very quickly.
Q: What are a few of the most memorable public reactions to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb Guard?
A: People, especially little kids, would try to make us laugh. Sadly, I also experienced people calling me “fascist” and “baby killer” while on post. The worst were the people who would sneak into the cemetery at night (this was pre-9/11, so it was much easier). It didn’t happen often, but they would stand outside of the well-lit plaza and yell. That was unnerving.
Q: What aspect of your Tomb Guard tours would Center for Homeland Defense and Security alums be most interested in, particularly those in the military and public safety realms?
A: That the Guard actually has a legitimate military mission, which in my time focused on crowd control during civil unrest, and that the soldiers who serve there train for that as well as their very specific duties related to the Tomb