A soldier from Alabama who said her state’s civil rights struggle inspired her to succeed became the first black woman to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns, which honors America’s unidentified war dead.
Sgt. Danyell Elaine Wilson, 22, of Montgomery, made her first walk as a tomb sentinel at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday after receiving the Army’s tomb guard badge. Only 400 of the badges have been awarded since it was created in 1958.
“I wanted to do something different, and I figured this would be the highest honor as far as the Army goes, to guard the unknown soldier,” Wilson said after receiving the badge from Capt. Robert Forte, commander of the Army company that guards the tomb 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The hourly changing of the guard at the tomb is a solemn ceremony that has become one of the most visited attractions in the nation’s capital since the tomb opened to the public in 1932.
Between ceremonies, the lone sentinel marches 21 steps down a black mat behind the tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces north for 21 seconds, and then retraces the 21 steps. The 21 steps and 21-second turns symbolize the highest military honor, the 21-gun salute.
Tomb guards, all volunteers, are members of E Company of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as the Old Guard. Until 1993, when a female military police unit was attached to the Old Guard, women were not eligible to volunteer for guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Wilson is only the second woman to earn the tomb guard badge. The first was Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnsen of Fremont, Calif.
“I think that it’s finally showing the public how the Army has opened the doors to females,” Wilson said of her new assignment. “This is just one of the many opportunities that we have.”
Wilson said she went through six months training to qualify for the tomb guard badge, including learning the history of the cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 prominent veterans.
Wilson said the civil rights struggles that took place in her home state before she was born inspired her to seek the assignment.
“I was taught never to let anything stand in my way,” she said. “I am from Alabama, where a lot of civil rights was taking place, and that taught me to follow my dream and not let anything stand in my way, regardless of race, creed or color.”