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The Littlest Sentinel

Featured Photo from The Littlest Sentinel

Thanks to her tribute to those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, third grader Lilly Everland earns a ceremonial spot in the military’s most iconic regiment

Twenty-one steps. Turn, and click. Then, 21 seconds of solemn silence. Turn and click again. Twenty-one more seconds, and then 21 more steps.

Those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. – a select group of Army infantrymen known as Sentinels – repeat this simple but sacred routine 24 hours a day, every day, without interruption. Sentinels, with the signature metal heels of their boots that strike together as they come to attention, patrol in the rain, the winter snow, and the summer heat. The watch has continued, uninterrupted, since July 2, 1937. Sentinels patrolled as President Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery only yards away. They patrolled as smoke rose from the Pentagon on 9/11.

To some, the assignment may sound like drudgery, at best, or even punishment, but it is, in fact, one of the most prestigious and sought-after duties in the Army. To guard the Tomb of the Unknowns is to honor fellow soldiers who not only gave their lives in defense of our country, they gave up their very identities. Their sacrifice, as it reads on the monument that sits atop the graves of three anonymous soldiers, is “known but to God.” Protecting these graves is a privilege. Membership in the ranks of the Sentinels is so exclusive, only the Army Astronaut Corps accepts fewer applicants. 

So when a Lake Mary resident receives a letter from the commanding officer of the Sentinels declaring her an honorary member of this vaunted group, that’s something worth celebrating... and it’s exactly what happened to Crystal Lake Elementary third grader Lilly Everland.

Lilly’s fascination with the Sentinels was sparked by her grandfather, John Alexander. Loyal Lake Mary Life readers might remember John – who, despite his battle with Parkinson’s disease, competes in triathlons and long-distance bicycle rides – from the cover of our Jan/Feb ‘18 issue. Last fall, during a trip to our nation’s capital, John received a FaceTime call from Lilly just as he was about to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. John told his granddaughter she had to stay quiet, but he pointed his phone’s camera at the ceremony and let Lilly see firsthand how seriously the Sentinels take their duty.

The young girl was captivated. The next month, Crystal Lake Elementary announced a U.S. Symbol Living History Museum project, in which students would dress up as famous American symbols and deliver presentations about them.

“Lots of kids dressed up as the Statue of Liberty,” says eight-year-old Lilly, “and there were a lot of bald eagles, too, but I wanted to do something different.”

Her chosen symbol, of course, was the dutiful Sentinel who guards the tomb.

Just as the Sentinels walk along a black, rubberized mat, Lilly laid out her own black walkway for her presentation and meticulously recreated the Sentinels’ uniform, complete with a wooden plank to represent their ever-present rifle. She repeated the march of the Sentinels perfectly – 21 steps, 21 seconds, the click of their heels, and the crisp shift of the rifle from one shoulder to another. Between trips across the mat, Lilly explained the importance of the Sentinels to her teachers and classmates.

Lilly’s mom, Jen, took a video of her daughter’s presentation, and John decided to send a clip to the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment in Washington – also known as The Old Guard – home of the Sentinels.

A few weeks later, John paid a visit to Lilly’s house in Lake Mary with a special package. Inside was a letter from Colonel James J. Tuite, IV, Regimental Commander of the Old Guard. In the letter, Colonel Tuite praised Lilly for her thoughtful and detailed tribute to the Sentinels and said, “We’ve been referring to you as our Littlest Sentinel.”

Colonel Tuite said Lilly’s choice to honor the Sentinels brings them comfort as they carry out their duties, rain or shine, and he even concluded the letter with a handwritten note that read, “Lilly, you are inspiring! Please consider joining The Old Guard when you are ready!”

The package also included a certificate of appreciation for Lilly and a Challenge Coin from the Honor Guard Platoon.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Lilly says. “It was so neat that they sent those things to me. It was really special.”

For all her expertise in the Sentinels, Lilly has never seen The Old Guard in action, but the Everland family is planning a trip to Washington so Lilly can witness the Sentinels’ solemn walk in person.

And one day, Lilly says, maybe she’ll walk the well-worn path where her brother and sister Sentinels have stood continuous watch over America’s honored dead for more than 80 years.

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