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Tomb of the Unknowns: Guards keep watch 24/7

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On hallowed ground, a lone soldier stands on an open plaza. Twenty-one steps. Turn. He then faces the tomb for 21 seconds. Stands at attention, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The number 21 is symbolic of the 21-gun salute, which is the highest military honor.

The soldier continues his solitary walk. Battered by bone-chilling wind, blizzards, hurricanes or scorching heat, nothing fazes this soldier. He is a sentinel, a guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

The tomb guards maintain a constant vigil at the tomb, no matter the weather conditions. He and a small group of soldiers have one of the most sacred missions in the military, and he would walk through fire to honor and protect the fallen, nameless soldiers under his watch. They are part of an unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to the 1920s.

For nearly 70 years, sentinels from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” have been watching over the hallowed memorial and have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—24 hours a day, 365 days a year since April 6, 1948.

Tomb guards are hand-picked and rigorously trained. The duty at the tomb is not for everyone, and the majority of soldiers who begin tomb guard training fail. It’s not an easy job. According to the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, since 1959, only about 570 soldiers have been awarded the coveted Tomb Guard Identification Badge.

The mechanics of guard duty come naturally to very few. Trainers spend countless hours providing feedback and teaching the nuances of the sentinel’s duty. A soldier has to be driven to endure the 24-hour long shifts and weather extremes. After enlisting, volunteering, and being selected for the Old Guard, soldiers can eventually try out for one of 27 sentinel positions. Less than 20 percent of soldiers typically make it.

While on duty, the sentinel crosses a 63-foot rubber-surfaced walkway. The soldier “walking the mat” does not wear rank insignia so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. As a gesture against intrusion on their post, the sentinel always bears his weapon away from the Tomb.

Only under exceptional circumstances may the guard speak or alter his silent, measured tour of duty. He will issue a warning if anyone attempts to enter the restricted area around the tomb but will first halt and bring his rifle to port arms.

The guard wears the Army Dress Blue Uniform, reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800s. Tomb guards wear the Tomb Identification Badge on the right breast pocket. The design is an inverted, open laurel wreath surrounding a representation of the front elevation of the tomb. The words “Honor Guard” are engraved at the base of the badge. A guard leaving after at least nine months of service is entitled to wear the badge as a permanent part of the uniform, always knowing it is the only badge the Army may revoke, even after retirement, for any blemish of honor.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was constructed in 1921, after Congress approved the burial of an unidentified US soldier from World War I, with other unknowns interred since. The unknown soldiers laid to rest at the tomb represent all missing and unknown service members who made the ultimate sacrifice—they not only gave their lives, but also their identities to protect our freedom.

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The monument itself that rests on top of the unknown grave is a sarcophagus. It’s simple yet impressive in its dimensions. Its austere, flat-faced form is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic columns set onto the surface. Beneath the white marble tomb sarcophagus lies the body of an unidentified American soldier from World War I.

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West of the sarcophagus beneath three marble slabs that lie flush with the plaza are crypts for the unidentified remains of an American soldier from World War II and Korea and the empty crypt that once held the unidentified remains of a serviceman from the Vietnam War.

The three figures of Valor, Victory, and Peace are sculpted into the panel, which faces Washington. On the plaza, the words “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God” are inscribed.

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A must-see for the approximately four million people who visit Arlington National Cemetery each year is watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Most of these visitors marvel at the precision and discipline shown in the ceremony, but not everyone truly understands what it means to be a tomb guard.

Two Army veterans and former Tomb Guards want to change that. They created "The Unknowns," a documentary offering a behind-the-scenes look at the soldiers and who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations.

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