Honoring Those That Served

My friend Phil Siebert, a Vietnam War Veteran and Founder and President of Julius Arthur Seibert & Co., honored Veteran’s Day by sending out a note to clients and friends about the traditions that surround the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some of the information below apparently began with a Jeopardy question asking “How many steps does a guard take during their walk across the tomb of the Unknowns?” — My thanks to Phil for providing the idea to share this information as a wonderful way to honor those who have protected, defended and in may cases given their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy today.

The information below is a combination of some of the information provided at the following websites:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: https://tombguard.org/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier/the-tomb-guard/.

Society of the Honor Guard – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: https://tombguard.org/society/faq/.

Tomb Guards are handpicked and rigorously trained. The duty at the Tomb is not for everyone, with the majority of soldiers who begin Tomb Guard training failing. Tomb Guards describe their service as a privilege and an honor, and are undeniably proud of their service. They are part of an unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to 1926. The ideals of the Tomb became the guidepost for their lives, as well as a motivating factor and measuring stick for future endeavors.

The Tomb is comprised of three Tomb squads “reliefs”, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Reliefs, each with 5-8 soldiers. The reliefs are organized based on height, so that the Tomb Guards are similar in size during the Changing of the Guard. Although the Sergeant of the Guard can organize reliefs based operational needs.

The mission of the Tomb platoon is:

  • Responsible for maintaining the highest standards and traditions of the United States Army and this Nation while keeping a constant vigil at this National Shrine, and;
  • Whose special duty is to prevent any desecration or disrespect directed toward the Tomb.

To become a Tomb Guard, an Old Guard soldier must volunteer by applying for appointment to the Tomb through the Sergeant of the Guard. To be considered for an appointment, the soldier must be highly motivated and disciplined, and possess a strong military bearing and soldierly appearance.

Frequently asked questions:

How many steps does a guard take during their walk across the tomb of the Unknowns?   The answer is twenty one, which alludes to the twenty-one gun salute and is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

How long does the guard hesitate after they reach the end of their walk?  Twenty one seconds – for the same reason.  They turn and face the Tomb for twenty one seconds, then turn back to the mat and start their return walk.  

Why are the guard’s gloves wet? The gloves are moistened to prevent losing their grip on the rifle.

Do they carry their rifle on the same shoulder all the time?  No.  They carry the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb.

How often are the guards changed?  Guards are changed every thirty minutes in the summer and every hour in the winter.  They work 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on then 96 off.  The schedule has varied over the years.  During the hours the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every 2 hours. The Tomb is guarded, and has been guarded, every minute of every day since 1937.

The average tour at the Tomb is about a year. There is no set time for service there. The Sentinels live either in a barracks on Ft. Myer (the Army post located adjacent to the cemetery) or off base if they like. They do have living quarters under the steps of the amphitheater where they stay during their 24 hour shifts.  It takes the average Sentinel 8 hours to prep his or her uniform for the next work day. There have been 3 female Sentinels since 2001.

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is awarded after the Sentinel passes a series of tests. The Badge is permanently awarded after a Sentinel has served 9 months as a Sentinel at the Tomb. Over 500 have been awarded since its creation in the late 1950’s. And while the Badge can be revoked, the offense must be such that it discredits the Tomb. Revocation is at the Regimental Commander’s discretion.

Their shoes are standard issue military dress shoes and 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 buildup as he or she walks down the mat. This allows him to move in a fluid fashion.  The soles have a steel tip on the toe and a “horseshoe” steel plate on the heel.  The guard change is occasionally done in the “silent” mode as a sign of devotion to the Unknowns.”  Everything is done in relation to the heel clicks and on specific counts.

We at Sigma honor and thank all Veterans who have served to in the Armed Forces of The United States of America.

All comments and questions are welcome.

Denise Farkas, CFA®