Honor Guard

A description of the duties and obligations of honor guards at Arlington National Cemetery.

As a society, we have long observed traditional, solemn funereal ceremonies as a means of remembering, honoring, and mourning those who have passed on from this life to whatever lies beyond. As a nation, we observe some very formalized rituals as a means of affording our very highest honors to members of the armed forces who have died in the service of their country, particularly those who have fallen in wartime. Military funerals with honor guards, flag-draped coffins, salutes, and burials in cemeteries set aside for veterans are all symbols by which we honor and acknowledge our gratitude to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

There is perhaps no more potent symbol of this sacrifice than the "unknown soldier," the serviceman who has died in combat but whose remains are not identifiable. He cannot be returned to his home, his friends and loved ones cannot know for certain how or when (or even if) he died, he cannot be placed to rest in a site of his own choosing. He remains, perpetually, a soldier who not only gave up his life for his country, but his very identity as well. That loss of identity makes the unknown soldier a powerful symbol, however — because he is no longer an individual, he stands for the purest ideals of courage, valor, and sacrifice and serves as a noble and selfless representation of service to one's country.

We acknowledge our unidentified fallen heroes with a special place of reverence in our most honored of burial grounds: the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), where in 1921 we first laid to rest "In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God." Although we cannot inter all of our unidentifed war dead in Arlington, we nonetheless honor them all by including the remains of three representative soldiers of unknown identity who died in foreign wars (World War I, World War II, and the Korean War) there. (Beginning in 1984 the tomb also held the remains of a serviceman killed in the Vietnam War, but after DNA testing confirmed his identity in 1998, his remains were disinterred and returned to his family. The crypt of the Vietnam Unknown has remained empty ever since.)

The most visible honorific symbol associated with the Tomb of the Unknowns is that the site is guarded around the clock, every day of the year, by specially trained members of the Third United States Infantry Regiment (also known as the "Old Guard"). The Sentinels who guard the Tomb must be exemplary in discipline, dress, and bearing; thoroughly knowlegeable with the history of their unit, the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery (and those interred there), and the U.S. Army; and able to execute a variety of ceremonial rites flawlessly and with precision.

Someone apparently wanted to highlight the special qualities and training required to be a guard at Tomb of the Unknowns by creating the widely-circulated message quoted above, a list mixing fact and fiction which we'll try to sort out below:

1. How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns and why?

21 steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

The guards do make 21-step walks past the Tomb of the Unknowns because 21 is considered a number of special significance, a topic discussed on our page about the origins of the 21-gun salute.

2. How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why?

21 seconds for the same reason as answer number 1.

This is a somewhat true but incomplete statement. The guard does not execute an about-face, and there is more involved in the procedure than is described here. As another site describes the process, the guard performs his movements according to the following pattern:

  • The sentinel marches 21 steps across the black mat, past the final resting places of the Unknown Soldiers of World War I, World War II, Korea, and the crypt of the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War.

  • With a crisp turn, the sentinel turns 90 degrees (not about-face) to face east for 21 seconds.

  • The sentinel then turns a sharp 90 degrees again to face north for 21 seconds. A crisp "shoulder-arms" movement places the rifle on the shoulder nearest the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any threat.

  • After the moment, the sentinel paces 21 steps north, turns and repeats the process.

3. Why are his gloves wet?
His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.

According to the FAQ on the web site of the Society of the Honor Guard — Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, this is correct.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not?

He carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb After his march across the path, he executes an about face, and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

As noted above, the guard shifts his rifle prior to each 21-step walk to ensure that it is always carried on his outside shoulder, the one away from the Tomb ("to signify that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any threat").

5. How often are the guards changed?

Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

From 1926 through 1937, the Tomb was guarded only during daylight hours. Ever since 1937, the Tomb has been continuously guarded 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Tomb guards are changed every thirty minutes between 8 AM and 7 PM during the period from early Spring to early Autumn (April 1 through September 30), and every hour between 8 AM to 5 PM the rest of the year. At all other times (i.e., while the cemetery is closed), the guard is changed every two hours.

6. What are the physical traits of the guard limited to?

For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb, he must be between 5' 10" and 6' 2" tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30.

This is also true, according to the ANC web site, which notes that "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, with a proportionate weight and build."

They must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives.

Even the Old Guard doesn't regulate the off-duty lives of its members so stringently!

Sentinels at the Tomb do not have to commit to serving there for any fixed period of time, and the average tour of duty is only about half the two year period claimed here. Like most servicemen, Tomb guards may live either on-base (at nearby Fort Myer) or off-base in housing of their choosing. There are no restrictions on guards' off-duty drinking.

They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform (fighting) or the tomb in any way. After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb. There are only 400 presently worn. The guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin.

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge, first awarded in 1957, is a honor for which a guard qualifies by "flawlessly performing his duty for several months" and passing a test, not something simply handed out to everyone who serves for a given period of time:

Once the sentinel has completed his or her training, he or she is examined formally for proficiency in performing the duties and in knowledge of ANC. He or she must first pass a written examination of 100 questions about ANC and then be evaluated on proficiency in keeping watch at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Upon successful completion, the soldier is awarded a temporary Tomb Guard's Badge at a ceremony presided over by the company commander. The Badge is one of the Army's higher honors and can be taken away from the soldier if he or she does not continue to maintain the highest military standards.

The 500th Tomb Guard Identification Badge was awarded in early 2002, and the total number of recipients is now about 525. The award is, as its name states, a badge worn on the pocket of a uniform jacket, not a pin worn in the lapel.

Although the claim that guards "cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives" is fallacious, there is some truth to the notion that the Tomb Guard Identification Badge can be taken away, even after the recipient has left the service. According to Old Guard Public Affairs:

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is one of the least awarded badges in the Army, second only to the Astronaut Badge. Since the sentinels are held to such a high standard, if they ever do anything that is deemed behavior unbecoming a Tomb Guard or brings dishonor upon the Tomb, their badges may be revoked, even after [the sentinels] have left active duty military service.

As of early 2002, there had been nine revocations of the Tomb Guard Identification Badge.

The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt. There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.

The FAQ at www.tombguard.org also addresses this topic:

The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt. There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.

The shoes are standard issue military dress shoes. They are built up so the sole and heel are equal in height. This allows the Sentinel to stand so that his back is straight and perpendicular to the ground. A side effect of this is that the Sentinel can "roll" on the outside of the build up as he walks down the mat. This allows him to move in a fluid fashion. If he does this correctly, his hat and bayonet will appear to not "bob" up and down with each step. It gives him a more formal and smooth look to his walk, rather than a "marching" appearance.

The soles 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.

The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone, nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred. Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.

A Tomb guard's behavior is not so stringently regulated that he is prohibited from speaking to anyone for a full six months (someone seems to have confused the Old Guard with a monastery!), and guards may do whatever they want (including watching TV) during their off-duty hours. But since any soldier wishing to become a sentinel must undergo rigorous training, including several hours a day of marching, rifle drill and uniform preparation, and every tomb sentinel is expected to be completely versed in the history of both the tomb and of Arlington National Cemetery (including knowing how to find the graves of all the prominent person buried in the cemetery), they don't necessarily have a lot of free time to devote to recreational activities.

Among the notables are: President Taft, Joe E. Lewis (the boxer), and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy (the most decorated soldier of WWII) of Hollywood fame.

Joe Louis (aka "The Brown Bomber"), Heavyweight Champion of the World between 1937 and 1949, is the boxer interred at Arlington National Cemetery. (Joe E. Lewis, the comedian, is buried in New Jersey.) Although Joe Louis served in the Army during World War II he did not meet the technical requirements for burial at Arlington, but he is interred there because President Reagan waived the requirements when Louis died in 1981.

We close here with a bit of trivia suggested by the above item:

Although serving as President of the United States qualifies one to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only two former Presidents are interred there: William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy.

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