Army Pfc. Jessica Kwiatkowski leaned forward as she walked against the wind and rain. As a Tomb Guard with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), she walked her twenty-one steps in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in the middle of a violent rainstorm on the evening of Saturday, July 29, 2023. Amid the storm, she walked her post without the ability to see.
Rain had speckled and fogged up her sunglasses, making vision impossible. Counting her steps, she made her way to the "Green Box," a one-person-sized shelter on the north side of the Tomb that includes a phone. Once there, she called the Tomb Guard Quarters and told her fellow guards about her dilemma. They told her to just wipe off her glasses. "With what," she asked, "my wet gloves?" Then they told her to walk without her glasses. She refused. "These are like my goggles right now," she told them. She would be just as blind in the lashing rain without them.
Kwiatkowski returned to walking the mat. As the Tomb Plaza flooded with water, she could not see the lines that guided her where to go, so she continued counting her steps. She leaned into the winds as they tried to blow her back. The powerful gusts made her rifle drill movements a challenge. "I couldn't change shoulders without dropping my weapon," she explained. "I just had to take the rifle off [one shoulder] and place it on my other."
As she trudged through the heavy rain and wind, she worried about one thing: "I was surprised my ceremonial cap didn't fly off."
Ironically, Kwiatkowski had finished "walking the mat" that day well before the rain fell. She had already changed into civilian clothes inside the Quarters during the 4:30 p.m. changing of the guard.
"Towards the end of the guard change, it started drizzling a little bit," said Staff Sgt. Isaiah Jasso, the relief commander who oversaw the 4:30 guard change. The winds also began to gust. The soldier Jasso had just posted to the tomb, Spc. Adam Platt, wore no rain gear, only his blue uniform blouse.
Back at the Quarters, Pfc. Jeffrey Potter, noticed the rain as he watched the guard change on a set of monitors. Not wanting Platt to ruin his uniform, he told Kwiatkowski to get into a "three-minute go" — changing into her uniform and raincoat in three minutes. Kwiatkowski quickly donned her uniform.
As soon as Staff Sgt. Jasso returned to the Quarters with the original guard, he also put on a raincoat. Within three minutes, he and Kwiatkowski were marching out to relieve Platt. To get him out of the rain quickly, Jasso performed a Post One exchange, a shortened version of a guard change that takes only five minutes, compared to the usual ten-minute change.
Once on the Tomb Plaza, Kwiatkowski started walking the mat and thought, "It's not that bad." Then the winds picked up and the rain began to lash, fogging her glasses. Lightning bolts cracked the sky, but she still didn't worry. "I just thought: 'if it gets closer, I'm just going to go into the [Green] Box.'" Only after the storm had passed did she discover that a pine tree near the Tomb had been felled by lightning.
After ten minutes of walking, Kwiatkowski realized her well-polished shoes were probably ruined. Still unable to see, she decided to just make the best of it.
Inside the Quarters, Potter and Jasso watched Kwiatkowski on the monitors as they waited for the 5 p.m. guard change. They could see the trees around her swaying as the visibility diminished. Suddenly, the power went out. The screens all went dark. Tomb Guards took turns running out into the storm to check on Kwiatkowski, making sure she was okay and that she knew there would be a Post One guard change.
At 5 p.m. the Memorial Amphitheater's clock began to chime, signaling the changing of the guard. As Kwiatkowski walked, another guard, in civilian clothes, gave her hand signals that there would be a Post One guard change, but she could not clearly see them. "I just assumed that he's telling me to go the Green Box," she said. So, she headed to the box until one of the guards told her, "It's a Post One, get back on the mat."
Jasso and the relief guard marched out to Kwiatkowski in almost ankle-deep water. Despite the wind and rain, they put on a sharp changing ceremony. "There were still people out on the stairs under the roof [of the Memorial Amphitheater]," she said. "So, we just had to make it look the best that we could."
The rain and wind were so loud that Jasso could not raise his voice enough to tell the small audience that the cemetery was closing and that they needed to depart. Finally, Pfc. Potter walked over to the visitors and told them, "Sorry guys, I hate to do this, but you have to leave now."
As Jasso and Kwiatkowski walked back to the Quarters, Kwiatkowski noticed that every single Tomb Guard on duty, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, had come out to watch her make her way back. The two soldiers stepped over downed tree branches and piles of leaves, and as they reached the Quarters' door, they had to walk through a last giant puddle.
Once the guards were back in the Quarters, they all burst out laughing. "It's funny when stuff like that happens," said Kwiatkowski. Jasso felt the same. "It was a good time," he said. "We train for this, we practice for this, it was just another day in the office." The storm proved to be a bonding moment for everyone.
Pfc. Kwiatkowski, who has been walking the mat for eight months, had experienced worse winds in the winter, but the walk on July 29 was special. She reflected, "This was definitely one of my top outside moments."