The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns

The audience at Arlington National Cemetery is respectfully silent and still while they witness what has come to be known as the “Changing of the Guard” at The Tomb of the Unknowns. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all types of weather by Tomb Guard Sentinels. The all volunteer Sentinels, are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment and are headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia.

With the sharpest of military precision, the guard is changed every hour on the hour October, 1 to March, 31 in an elaborate ritual. From April 1 through September 30, there are more than double the opportunities to view the change because another change is added on the half hour and the cemetery closing time moves from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.

The 3rd United States Infantry has served our Nation continuously since 1784, and today is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army, it is traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” a proud nickname ascribed by General Winfield Scott during a victory parade at Mexico City in 1847.

Since World War II, “The Old Guard” has served as the official Army Honor Guard and escort to the President. In that capacity, 3rd Infantry Soldiers are responsible for conducting military ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon, national memorials and elsewhere in the nation’s capital.*

The black-and-tan “buff strap” worn on the left shoulder by each member of the 3rd Infantry is a replica of the knapsack strap used by 19th-century predecessors of the unit to display its distinctive colors and distinguish its members from other Army units. The present buff strap continues to signify an Old Guard soldier’s pride in personal appearance and precision performance that has marked the unit for 200 years.*

Tomb Sentinels from the Old Guard begins the Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Army photo by Kerry Solan)

Tomb Sentinels from the Old Guard begins the Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Army photo by Kerry Solan)

Appropriately, the men who march 21 steps south, turn and march 21 steps north, and then repeat the process minute-by-minute for up to an hour at a time day or night, are the very best of the Army. Whether under a blazing sun, unsheltered from driving rains, or in freezing snow, they perform their duty with great precision and military bearing. Soldiers wishing to join the 3rd Infantry are eligible to apply for duty as a sentinel ONLY after they have already been ceremonially qualified in The Old Guard. Each soldier among them is physically fit for the demanding responsibility and between 5’10″ and 6’4″ tall with a proportionate weight and build.**

Acceptance in The Old Guard’s Company E does not assure a volunteer that he will become one of the fewer than 400 Soldiers in the last 45 years to earn the distinctive Tomb Guard Badge. Before any soldier is allowed “a walk,” he must memorize seven pages of history on Arlington National Cemetery and then recite it verbatim. If a soldier finishes this phase and is granted “a walk,” he enters a new phase of training known as “new-soldier training”. In addition to extensive training in the manual of arms, the guard change ceremony, and the intricacies of military ritual, the new-soldier is required to memorize additional information on Arlington, including the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans.**

It may take months for a soldier to earn the right to TEST to wear the coveted silver Tomb Guard Identification badge, and even then, the award is temporary. Only after the sentinel has served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for nine months does the award become permanent. One of the Army’s rarest emblems, it features the inverted laurel and a replica of the East face of the tomb where Greek images represent the virtues of Victory, Valor, and Peace.**

Each “walk” is a shift of one-half hour during daylight hours in the summer, one hour during daylight hours in the winter, and all night shifts are one-hour walks. Each walk concludes with the ceremonial Changing of the Guards…even when no audience is present.**

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty Is total and wholehearted In the responsibility bestowed on me Never will I falter And with dignity and perseverance My standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise And the discomfort of the elements I will walk my tour in humble reverence The best of my ability. It is he who commands the respect I protect His bravery that made us so proud. Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, Alone in the thoughtful peace of night, This soldier in honored Glory rest Under my eternal vigilance.

*Citations: http://www.oldguard.org/Regiment/Regiment.aspx

**Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier http://www.homeofheroes.com/gravesites/unknowns/0_unknowns_sentinels.html

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The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns