Guarding Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a Labor of Love

A soldier assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard,” walks the mat at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, May 2022.
Photo: Elizabeth Fraser/Army

In August, contestants on final Jeopardy, were asked, “How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns?” No one knew the answer.

How many steps does the guard (3rd Infantry “Old Guard”) take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns and why? 21 steps: It alludes to the 21-gun salute which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

How long does the guard hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why? 21 seconds for the same reason.

The rifle is always on the shoulder away from the tomb. After his march across the path, a guard executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

How often are the guards changed? Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, from April 1 to September 30. During winter months the guard is changed every hour. After the cemetery closes to the public during evening hours, the guard changes every two hours.

What are the physical traits of the guard? Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for men or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for women, with a proportionate weight and build.

To become a Sentinel of the Tomb, military personnel must first undergo an interview and a two-week trial. During the trial phase, they memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim to earn a “walk.”

If a soldier passes the first training phase, “new soldier” training begins. New Sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans.

To earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge, guards must pass several tests. First, they are tested on their manual of arms knowledge, uniform preparation, and walks. Then, they take the badge test, consisting of 100 randomly selected questions from the 300 items memorized during training. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct.

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is a temporary award until the badge-holding Sentinel has honorably served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for nine months.

At that time, the award can become a permanent badge, which may be worn for the rest of a military career.

The silver badge is an upside-down, laurel-leaf wreath surrounding a depiction of the Tomb’s front face, the words “Honor Guard,” and figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor. Only 600 Tomb Guards have earned the badge since the late 1950s.

Guards either live in barracks at Ft. Myer (adjacent to the cemetery) or off base, but when they are on duty, the use living quarters under the steps of the amphitheater at the cemetery.

The guard spends an average of six hours to prepare his uniform—heavy wool, regardless of the time of year—for the next day’s work. There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform.

The shoes have soles that have a steel tip on the toe and a “horseshoe” steel plate on the heel. This prevents wear on the sole and allows the Sentinel to move smoothly during his movements when he turns to face the Tomb and then back down the mat.

A shank of steel is attached to the inside of the face of the heel build-up on each shoe. It allows the Sentinel to heel click during certain movements. A guard change is considered great when all the heel clicks fall together and sound as one click. The guard change is occasionally done in the “silent” mode (as a sign of devotion to the Unknowns) with no voice commands – everything is done in relation to the heel clicks and on specific counts.

Line eight of the Sentinel’s Creed refers to the “discomfort of the elements.” In fact, it is considered an honor to walk the mat during inclement weather, which have included blizzards, thunderstorms and tropical storms.

The Society of the Honor Guard writes, “It gets cold, it gets hot and the mission continues as it has unbroken since 1937.” click here.


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8 Responses to Guarding Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a Labor of Love

  1. M says:

    FABULOUS story, thank you.
    What an honor these military men/women must feel being chosen to guard the Memorial….very inspirational. Only the absolute best are chosen. It makes one very proud to see them performing their guard duty, and now knowing what they must achieve to be chosen this honor. Thank you for the information, I had no idea of the requirements.

  2. Mary Elizabeth Horan says:

    I learned a lot from this. not just facts; respect and appreciation. thanks.

  3. Tom Meade says:

    Profound, Sue.

  4. Nicker says:

    Who would of known! Amazing to me. Thanks sis for the information

  5. Christine Odionu says:

    Thank You Sue I learned a lot of true facts I did not know. Beautiful article! Keep up the good work and reporting you do for the Palisades

  6. Sue says:

    Thank you so much for such an informative, uplifting and historical article.

  7. Gail Kim says:

    There is a beautiful illustrated children’s book, “Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” by Jeff Gottsfeld, which includes history of the Tomb and notes there was a period it wasn’t given the respect that it deserves.

  8. John Alle says:

    Really interesting article. Great research. Proud to be an American. Thanks for all you do Circling the News!!

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