Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers … debunking some myths …


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A viral email about the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers has been making the rounds since at least 2004 and recently showed up again on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=554950681235200&set=a.554382911291977.1073741828.554378554625746&type=1

The guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns are truly inspirational.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

However, based on my own experience as a Navy brat and 8 years in the military (4 at West Point and 4 in the Navy), some of this seemed too extreme to be true, even for an elite military unit. Therefore, I did some research when I first saw this chain email in 2004 and again when it resurfaced in 2011.

Unless otherwise noted, my responses below to the inaccuracies in this piece come from the FAQ page website for the Society of the Honor Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

http://tombguard.org/society/faq/

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.

Accurate.

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.

Inaccurate. The Guard site response: “He does not execute an about face. He stops on the 21st step, then turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds. Then he turns to face back down the mat, changes his weapon to the outside shoulder, counts 21 seconds, then steps off for another 21 step walk down the mat. He faces the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until he is relieved at the Guard Change.”

21 Steps

21 Steps

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

Accurate.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not? No, 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.

Mostly correct; see response to #2 above.

5. How often are the guards changed? Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

Inaccurate. The Guard site response: “The Guard is changed every thirty minutes during the summer (April 1 to Nov 1) and every hour during the winter. 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.”

24/7 Honor Guard

24/7 Honor Guard

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″.

Possibly inaccurate. The Guard site does not contain the physical requirements. The “Home of Heroes” site for the Guard at …

http://www.homeofheroes.com/gravesites/unknowns/0_unknowns_sentinels.html

… gives the requirements as: “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.”

6. (cont) Other requirements of the Guard: 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.

Complete nonsense (the patent silliness of this and some of the following “requirements” prompted me to check on this to begin with).

The Guard site response: “False. 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, but when they are off, they are off. And if they are of legal age, they may drink anything they like, except while on duty.”

6. (cont) They cannot swear in public FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES …

More nonsense, to which the Guard site responds: “False, how could that be enforced?”

6. (cont)… and cannot disgrace the uniform (fighting) or the tomb in any way.

Inaccurate. See response to following item re the guard badge.

6. (cont) 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.

Inaccurate. The Guard site response: “The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is awarded after the Sentinel passes a special test. The Badge is permanently awarded after a Sentinel has served 9 months. Currently there are 525 awarded. And while the Badge can be revoked, the offense must be very severe, such as a felony conviction. But you can drink a beer and even swear and still keep the Badge. And the Badge is a full size award, worn on the right pocket of the uniform jacket, not a lapel pin.”

Note:  I checked today and determined that the current number of badges is 610. See:

http://tombguard.org/tomb-guards/

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

6. (cont) 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.

Partially accurate. The Guard site response:

“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.

“Then there is the “clicker”. It is a shank of steel attached to the inside of the face of the build-up on each shoe. It allows the Sentinel to click his heels during certain movements. If a guard change is really hot, it is called a “smoker” because all the heel clicks fall together and sound like one click. In fact, the guard change is occasionally done in the “silent” mode (as a sign of devotion to the Unknowns”). No voice commands – everything is done in relation to the heel clicks and on specific counts.”

6. (cont) There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.

Could not find any information on this, though it seems reasonable to expect that the uniform pants would be creased front and rear.

6. (cont) 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.

More nonsense. See response above re living under the tomb and drinking alcohol.

6. (cont) A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.

This much appears to be accurate, if somewhat understated. “From the Home of Heroes” site: “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.”

6. (cont) Every guard spends FIVE HOURS A DAY getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.

Inaccurate. The Guard site states: “Currently, the Tomb Guards work on a three Relief (team) rotation – 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 96 hours off. However, over the years it has been different. The time off isn’t exactly free time. It takes the average Sentinel 8 hours to prep his/her uniform for the next work day. Additionally, they have Physical Training, Tomb Guard training, and haircuts to complete before the next work day.”

Thus, they are on duty three days on out of each nine day cycle. Eight hours of uniform prep for each work day equals 24 hours every nine days, or an average of 2 hours and forty minutes a day.

The widely reported refusal of the Tomb Guard to stand down during Hurricane Isabel IS a great, inspirational, and true story.

Rain or Shine

Rain or Shine

However, the final reference to the Tomb being guarded 24/7 continuously since 1930 is erroneous. As noted above, the 24/7 guard was instituted in 1937.  By the way, to date there have been 3 female tomb guards.

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5 thoughts on “Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers … debunking some myths …

    • Miss Makrert,

      When I wrote my blog post about the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and posted this photograph, it was my understanding (because it was on the the homepage of a military unit, as well as other locations, without attribution) that it had been taken by a member of the U.S. military as part of that person’s official duties. As such, as you probably know, it would be in the public domain and available for use by anyone.

      I am a former U.S. Navy public affairs officer and took thousands of photos as part of my official duties. Had I known that this photo was taken by a private person and subject to copyright restriction, I would not have used it. I have now replaced it with a graphic alternative.

      Jim Reilly

      • THANK YOU, Mr. Reilly! Honestly, you may be the first person I know of who has responded, especially in such a quick manner. I remember when this photo first went viral. I was actually taking photos of our soldiers that day as they were prepping to do a funeral. A friend called me and said there had been more than 200 shares of this picture from my Facebook account. I immediately called my husband (commander of the unit) and asked him to get PAO to help fix this “error”. They worked hard to get the word out quickly, and even sent in one of our photographers to take a photo of the soldier who was actually guarding the Tomb at the time.

        I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Out of all the people I’ve contacted who’ve posted this photo in one form or another, very few have corrected the error. Thank you for doing this, and for setting a good example for others when they are sharing photos online, as well. Hooah! 🙂

  1. Awesome article, very accurate.I really wish those other myths would be taken off the internet completely.

    • Thanks, Isaac, I appreciate the compliment … and agree with your sentiment about removing the inaccurate myths. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that will ever happen, as many people post things on the internet without bothering to confirm the accuracy of what they are posting.

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