Army officer spends his last moment in uniform guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, director of international affairs with the National Guard Bureau, watches the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery May 31, 2024. Zana, who served as a Tomb guard early in his career, stood watch at the Tomb as his final act in uniform.

By Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – Row after row of white marble headstones stand neatly amid the meticulously maintained grounds of Arlington National Cemetery —almost in formation. Each bears the name of one of about 400,000 service members, veterans and family members laid to rest here. It is a quiet, peaceful place. Occasionally, a far-off bugler plays Taps, breaking the silence and signifying the burial of another brother- or sister-in-arms. 
 
For families of the fallen buried here, each headstone is a somber monument to their loved one. It’s a place to lay graveside flowers and soliloquize updates from their lives. For many others, there is no headstone —unidentified dead long a consequence of armed conflict. They are collectively memorialized by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 
 
For Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, taking a final guard shift at the Tomb last month capped 37 years of service— retracing the same footsteps he took decades earlier, it was a fitting end.
 
While it is rare for such high-ranking individuals to fulfill this duty, Zana’s career was anything but common. He retired June 1 as the only Tomb guard, also called Sentinel, to become a general officer.
 
“I can think of no more humbling or meaningful way to end my time in the Army than to have the privilege of taking a final guard shift at the Tomb of the Unknowns,” Zana said. “This really connects me to why I served.
 
“The reality of coming back, 30 years later … a flood of thoughts and feelings took over — a deep appreciation for all those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice, and those I have served with. To be able to reflect on the opportunities and the experiences I’ve had since my last guard shift was profound.”
 
Before May 31, Zana’s last shift as a Tomb Sentinel was March 28, 1991. His most recent assignment was as the director of the National Guard Bureau’s Strategic Plans and Policy, and International Affairs in the Pentagon. To him, his service will forever be defined by his time in the 3rd Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard” — the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the president. Sentinels are charged with the solemn duty to stand watch over the Tomb 24/7/365.
 
Zana enlisted in the Army as a private in 1987, intending only to serve out his four-year commitment. Part of his upbringing in post-World War II Western Europe left an impression of service on him, and from his youngest years, he felt inspired to serve. 
 
“I played on the battlegrounds there as a kid,” he said. “I had relatives who served. And I remember the photographs of the service uniforms or some sort of representation of their time in service. That kind of stuck with me. Like, this is something you’re supposed to do — a rite of passage to serve your country.”
 
After Army basic training, he arrived at Fort Myer, as it was then called, to serve in the Old Guard.

“It just seemed interesting to me, and a good fit,” he said.

First, he participated in ceremonial funerals at Arlington cemetery. He then volunteered to work as a Tomb Sentinel, where he served as a sergeant from June 1989 to May 1991. 
 
“During my first visit back in 1987, I hadn’t yet even dreamed of being a Tomb guard,” he said. “The cemetery seemed surreal and the Tomb, an ethereal place. As I participated in burials here in the cemetery as a young Soldier, I witnessed firsthand the grief and loss that families suffered. 
 
“Coming to Arlington now, it feels different,” he said. “It’s evolved for me. It felt different after combat tours. Now when I come back, there are pieces of each of those feelings that come forth and it’s almost like they’re all yelling at the same time: ‘Remember this?’ ‘Remember this?’”
 
Over time, Zana began to accumulate a cohort of friends and comrades who are interred here, though none more personal than in section 66, grave 1254 — the burial site of his late wife, Rebecca. 
 
“I would have never, could have never anticipated how much that shifts your perspective of a place and your experience of that place,” he said.
 
Zana’s experiences at Arlington National Cemetery compelled him to live a life of service when he left active duty to join the National Guard. The cemetery’s proximity to opportunities in the National Capital Region propelled him to serve in the Guard on active orders throughout much of his career, including on multiple deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, time with the Virginia Guard’s 29th Infantry Division and later as the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in Djibouti, before returning to the National Guard Bureau. 
 
In retirement, Zana and his wife, Army Lt. Col. Agata Zana, plan to visit Arlington National Cemetery as much as possible. They will both be supporting an Honor Flight of veterans into Washington, D.C., at the end of the month.
 
“This really connects me to why I have served and, more importantly, gives me an opportunity to recognize the support and sacrifices of those who have served before, with and after me,” Zana said. “To share the connections between what we do now in service with future and previous generations is so important. It’s always about trying to connect the generations.”

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