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Guarding The


TOMB
Of The
Unknown Soldier

The Sentinels

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.  Headquartered out of Fort Myer, Virginia, 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 been the Army's official HONOR GUARD.  Among their duties, beyond providing security to our Nation's Capitol in time of national emergency or civil disturbance,  are some of the most impressive displays of military ceremony.

Soldiers from The Old Guard escort the President, conduct military ceremonies at the White House, Pentagon, and national memorials in our Capitol City, including funeral details and other special ceremonies at Arlington National Cemeteries.  One of their most recognized responsibilities is providing sentinels...Tomb Guards, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Pfc. Justin Burns stands watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Since April 6, 1948 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of weather.  Millions of Americans annually visit the Memorial Amphitheater to watch these dedicated soldiers of a new generation, dutifully pace 21 steps across a black mat on the west face of the Tomb.  It is a time honored ritual, executed with great precision and filled with American pride.

  • The sentinel marches 21 steps across the black mat, past the final resting places of the Unknown Soldiers of World War I, World War II, Korea, and the crypt of the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War.  
  • With a crisp turn, the sentinel turns 90 degrees to face east for 21 seconds.
  • The sentinel then turns a sharp 90 degrees again to face north for 21 seconds.  A crisp "shoulder-arms" movement places the rifle on the shoulder nearest the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any threat.
  • After the moment, the sentinel paces 21 steps north, turns and repeats the process.

The practiced cadence is timed so that the sentinel paces at a rate of 90 steps each minute.

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.


Click for Larger Image

 

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's best.  Whether under a blazing sun, unsheltered from driving rains, or in freezing snow, they perform their duty with great precision and military bearing.  Each of them is a volunteer from the 3rd Infantry, 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.

 

Changing of the guard 

The Changing
of
The Guard

The changing of the guard ceremony is conducted every hour in winter time, and every half hour during summer daylight hours to provide visitors ample opportunity to witness one of the Army's proudest traditions.

As the active sentry nears the conclusion of his walk, a uniformed relief commander enters the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard.  When the sentinel assigned the next walk leaves the guards' quarters, he unlocks the bolt of his M-14 rifle to signify that he is ready to begin the ceremony.  The relief commander approaches the tomb, slowly salutes, then faces the visitors and requests silence during the ceremony.

As the new sentinel approaches the relief commander slowly and with great precision, conducts a white-glove inspection of the sentinel's weapon.  The two then march to the center of the mat where the duty sentinel stops his walk, and all three men salute the Tomb.

"Pass on your orders."  the commander instructs the active sentinel.

"Post and orders, remain as directed."  He replies.

"Orders acknowledged."  Answers the relieving sentinel, who then steps into position at the center of the black mat.  As soon as the relief commander passes, the new sentinel begins his own walk, 21 paces south, turn and pause for 21 seconds, turn and pace 21 steps south, and then repeat the actions without distraction until relieved by the next Changing of the Guards.

 

American Unknown Soldiers at Arlington Cemetery
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The
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Story of The
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The Sentinels
Guarding the Tomb

Lt  Michael Blassie
Unknown no More

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