Who are the Tomb of the Unknowns Guards?
On a sunny day, or a day of clouds, of rain, snow or freezing cold, they walk their steady pace with precision and pride. Nothing deters them from their duty; respect and dedication is evidenced in their measured stride and erect bearing. Being a sentinel of the Tomb of the Unknowns is voluntary duty and less than 20% of those who volunteer are actually selected for training. Of those trained, only a small fraction are accepted as full-fledged Tomb Guards. Obviously, it’s a duty that requires only the best of the best.
The Old Guard
Since 1948, volunteers are taken from the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, known by the affectionate title “The Old Guard.” They wear no mark of rank on their uniforms, so that they never outrank the unknown dead. Commanders wear rank insignia only during the changing of the guards, and a similar uniform without rank when they themselves walk the guard post. Each guard carries an M-14 rifle, unloaded and equipped with a fixed bayonet.
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
The Tomb of the Unknowns
The Tomb of the Unknowns is also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It stands atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery overlooking Washington, D.C. The Tomb began to be called the Tomb of the Unknowns because there are unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. An unknown soldier of the Vietnam War was also placed in 1984, but the remains were subsequently identified in 1998, and the soldier’s family had the remains exhumed and re-interred near their home.The crypt that contained this soldier has remained empty since that time.It’s now engraved with the inscription “Honoring and Keeping Faith With America’s Missing Servicemen” as a reminder of the ongoing commitment of the Armed Forces to the fullest possible accounting for missing service members. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is found at the Ceremonial Entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. For something different about Arlington’s origins you may like The Story of Arlington.
“Walking The Mat”
The precise, mandatory ritual called “Walking the Mat” consists of steps and movements that are a symbolic reference to the 21-gun salute which is the highest honor given at the burial of a military person in America. The guard always carries his weapon on the shoulder opposite the tomb, visible to the people watching from the gallery, to signify the sentinel stands between the tomb and any threat. Below is the exact sequence the Tomb Guard performs.
- Marches 21 steps south across the black mat.
- Turns and faces east, toward the tomb for 21 seconds.
- Turns and faces north, changes weapon to outside shoulder, waits 21 seconds.
- Marches 21 steps down the mat.
- Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.
- Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder, waits 21 seconds
- Repeats the routine until replaced by another guard at the Changing of the Guard.
This exacting ritual is repeated until the guard is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard, which occurs every half hour from April 1 to September 30, and every hour from October 1 to March 31. After closing hours at 7 p.m. in warmer months and 5 p.m. during cool months the guard is changed every two hours. The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2, 1937.
The Mat Is Replaced Twice A Year
The mat is usually replaced twice a year, before Veteran’s Day and before Memorial Day. This is because of the wear on the rubber mat from the special shoes worn by Tomb Guards. The shoes have metal plates built into the soles and inner parts to allow for more rugged wear. This also provides that distinctive click of the heel during the end of each set of 21 steps. Guards wear sunglasses because of the light reflecting from the marble of the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater.
Tomb Guard Badge
A special, coveted Tomb Guard Identification Badge is permanently awarded to those who have served honorably as a Tomb Guard for a period of nine months, during which time they are given a sequence of tests they must pass. There are four women (see their names in the next paragraph) who have earned this badge among the many men. Tomb Guard Identification Badges have been awarded retroactively to soldiers who served as guards before 1959. The badge is the only one awarded by the United States Army that can be revoked after a soldier has left the military. The Regimental Commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment has the authority to revoke a badge from any guard, past or present, who commits any act that would bring dishonor upon the Tomb of the Unknowns. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is the second least awarded qualification badge of the United States military. The first least awarded is the Astronaut Badge.
In 2017, Sgt. Ruth Hanks became a Tomb of the Unknowns Guard and was awarded the coveted Tomb Guard Identification Badge. In 1996, Sgt. Heather L. Johnsen became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. After that, two additional female Sentinels who were also NCOs were awarded the badge ─ Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson in 1997, and Staff Sgt. Tonya D. Bell in 1998. To become a Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns, both men and women must officially submit paper work to volunteer.
More on the Guards of the Tomb of the Unknowns
As noted in the paragraph above, there are female Guards of the Tomb of the Unknowns. Other videos here also show what goes into the making of a Guard, the criteria and requirements. All are volunteers for the job; it is considered an honor to be chosen. The crowd watching the Changing of the Guard is requested to stand and to be silent in respect for the monuments to those who lost their lives defending our country. This is a video worth watching through its many changes.
Preparing the heavy woolen uniform, worn during all seasons, takes an average of six hours of the Tomb guard’s time each day. Shoes are specially made with thick soles to prevent cold or heat from their feet. Shoes must be shined and without blemish and uniform must be kept immaculate at all times, without a speck of lint. Physical training is required; sentinels must be in top condition at all times. Memorization of 17 pages of Arlington National Cemetery and Tomb of the Unknowns information is mandatory, including the locations of nearly 300 graves and the service members buried in each.
The War Memorials (History Channel) (A&E DVD Archives)
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