By Kevin M. Hymel, Contract Historian
Sgt. Kamille Torres Zapata (right) conducts her last walk guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (U.S. Army photo by Amber Vincent)
On the afternoon of March 9, 2023, the U.S. Army’s first Hispanic female Tomb Sentinel guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery for the last time. Sgt. Kamille Torres Zapata walked the 21 steps back and forth with acute precision until being relieved of duty during the changing of the guard ceremony. It was her 746th walk.
Torres Zapata had been working as an Army cook at Fort Myer, Virginia, when a sergeant invited her to apply to become a Tomb Guard. Since 1948, Soldiers from the 3d. U.S. Infantry Regiment (the “Old Guard”) have guarded the Tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They are chosen for this prestigious and highly meaningful post only after a rigorous selection process. Torres Zapata applied, she said, “because I wanted to be part of an organization that cared about the mission.” She earned the Tomb Badge on May 19, 2022, which promoted her from Guard to Sentinel and qualified her to oversee guard changes. She has overseen 400 changes of the guard.
Torres Zapata initially found the duties hard, but learned to succeed by being true to herself—a lesson she attributed to another woman in the unit, Sgt. 1st Class Chelsea Porterfield, the first female Sergeant of the Guard. “She told me to be Sgt. Kamille Torres, but also to be Kamille Torres,” she explained. “She said, ‘Once you take charge of male soldiers, it’s going to be difficult, but as soon as you build a great family and you show soldiers that you care about them, they’ll respect you right back.’”
One of Torres Zapata’s first challenges involved meeting the Tomb Guards’ famously exacting standards for physical appearance and uniform preparation. “I had to readjust my posture to wear the trousers, so that someone viewing me from the side would see a perfectly straight yellow stripe,” she recalled. Yet she proved that she could meet the Guards’ high standards: “I definitely executed, and they respected me for that.”
The honor of guarding the Unknowns, however, made such challenges worthwhile. Underscoring the teamwork necessary for this important duty, Torres Zapata explained, “When it comes to ten minutes out the door [when the Guard exits the Tomb Quarters], everyone drops what they’re doing, making sure the mission is conducted.” She also enjoyed the camaraderie—such as, at the end of each day, sitting around a table with her fellow Guards as they polished their shoes. “We’re all just so concentrated [on the mission],” she recalled with a smile. Torres Zapata took special pride in changing out Guards whom she had either trained or was still training.
Above: Sgt. Torres Zapata undergoes inspection after her final walk. (U.S. Army photo by Amber Vincent)
At times, Torres Zapata’s Hispanic heritage enhanced her duties. She often addressed visiting Latino groups in her native Spanish, and to improve her communication skills, she took a public speaking class. “I love seeing Latino families come to lay a wreath or visit and they say, ‘Oh, you speak Spanish!’”
According to Torres Zapata, the highlight of her duty was participating in the Guard’s first ever all-female changing of the Guard, on Sept. 29, 2021, when Sgt. 1st Class Porterfield oversaw her change posts with Sgt. Rachel Keough. “It was just a surreal moment,” she recalled. “It’s a male-dominated job,” she added, “so as a woman, you don’t want to mess up. If you do, it’s more noticeable.” The change, however, went off perfectly: “We were just so proud of each other.”
As Torres Zapata prepared for her last walk as a Sentinel, she reflected upon her first walk. On that walk, she recalled, “I was nervous and scared, but I have definitely grown since then. Now I’m 100 percent confident, because I know I’m not going to disappoint the Unknowns.” On her last walk, knowing she had led her troops well, Torres experienced very different emotions. When asked about her feelings once she finishes that walk, she smiled and simply said, “A lot of waterfalls.”
Sgt. Torres Zapata walks the mat, Aug. 23, 2021.
(U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)