The Tomb of the Unknowns

 I love America, and just wanted to share this information with you…you can read more about the dedication of these men and the Tomb of the Unknowns at Wikipedia where I got this litttle piece. I’m always impressed with the things you can learn there.

The Tomb Guards

It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a sentinel for the graves of the Unknown Soldiers. Less than 20% of all applicants are accepted. The sentinels do not wear rank insignia on their uniforms, so they do not outrank the Unknowns, whatever their rank may have been. Soldiers serving in other roles, like Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commander, do wear insignia of their rank.

Walking the Mat

There is a meticulous ritual the guard follows when watching over the graves:

  1. The soldier walks twenty one steps across the Tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary. His weapon is always on the shoulder opposite the Tomb (i.e., on the side of the gallery watching the ritual).
  2. On the 21st step, the soldier turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.
  3. The soldier then turns to face the other way across the Tomb and changes his or her weapon to the outside shoulder.
  4. After 21 seconds, the first step is repeated.

This is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

The mat is usually replaced twice per year, before Memorial Day and before Veteran’s Day. The guards have special metal plates built into their shoes to allow for a more rugged sole and to give the signature click of the heel during maneuvers. The guards are issued sunglasses, which are formed to their faces, due to the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the tomb and the amphitheater.

If one looks at the ground not covered by the mat, one can observe a wear pattern in the tile that corresponds to the precise steps taken during the changing of the guard.

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Assistant Relief Commander at left, Guard passing orders in center, and Guard receiving orders at right. The tomb is behind the Assistant Relief Commander.

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Assistant Relief Commander at left, Guard passing orders in center, and Guard receiving orders at right. The tomb is behind the Assistant Relief Commander.

 Changing of the Guard

During the day in summer months, from March 15 to September 30, the guard is changed every half hour. During the winter months, from October 1 to March 14, the guard is changed every hour. After the cemetery closes to the public (7pm to 8am April through September, and 5pm to 8am October through March), the guard is changed every two hours until the cemetery reopens.

The guard change is very symbolic, but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The relief commander or assistant relief commander, along with the oncoming guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The guard being relieved will say to the oncoming guard, “Post and orders remain as directed.” The oncoming guard’s response is always, “Orders Acknowledged.” Each guard has memorized three general orders and three special orders, which are all enforceable during his shift. A guard change takes approximately 10 minutes. The ceremony can be witnessed by the public whenever Arlington National Cemetery is open.


The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2, 1937. Inclement weather does not cause the watch to cease. The guards are extremely disciplined – even beyond what one might expect in soldiers – and will not show the effect the weather may have on them.

Tomb Guard in full uniform on a hot August day

Tomb Guard in full uniform on a hot August dayThe Tomb Guards, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), make personal sacrifices to have the honor of serving. They work on a team rotation of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for five days, taking the following four days off. A guard takes an average of 6 hours to prepare his uniform (which is solid wool–regardless of the time of year) for the next day’s work. In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also complete physical training, Tomb Guard training, cut their hair before the next work day, and shave twice per day. Tomb Guards are required to memorize 16 pages of information about Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, including the locations of over 100 graves and who is buried in each one.

A special Army decoration, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is authorized for wear passing a detailed test of 100 questions (from a pool of more than 300), a uniform test with two gigs (errors) or fewer (measured to the 1/64″), and a test on the guard changing sequence. After serving honorably for a period of nine months, and having passed the sequence of tests, a Tomb Guard is permanently awarded the Badge. Since 1959, many men have completed training and been awarded this Badge, as well as three women. A small number of Tomb Guard Identification Badges have also been retroactively awarded to soldiers who served as Guards before 1959. Those numbers make the Badge the rarest award currently issued in the United States Army (the Army Astronaut Badge, which is rarer, is no longer awarded).

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is the only badge awarded by the United States Army that can be revoked after a soldier has left the military. The Regimental Commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) has the authority to revoke a Badge from any Guard (past or present) for any act that would bring discredit upon the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The badge was designed in 1956 and first issued to members of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on February 7, 1958. The badge was first issued only as a temporary wear item, meaning the soldiers could only wear the badge during their tenure as members of the Honor Guard. Upon leaving the duty, the badge was returned and reissued to incoming soldiers. In 1963, a regulation was enacted which allowed the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Identification Badge to be worn as a permanent part of the military uniform, even after the soldier’s completion of duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


9 thoughts on “The Tomb of the Unknowns

  1. I’ve actually been privileged to see this ceremony a few times, and it is indeed awesome. All three times were in the middle of the summer, and in Washington that means hot…as in sweltering. To think that these guards wear wool and totally keep their composure is so impressive. Thanks for reminding everyone of this ceremony and the guards who perform it.

    This is one place on my “before I die I’d like to see” list. I’m such a fanatic about US history and the military; I just love this country and all the freedoms that we enjoy.

  2. I have had the honor of visiting the Tomb of the Unknowns. After a tour of Arlington National Cemetary, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Sunset Parade Iwo Jima, I was left with a better appreciation for just what has been given to keep this nation free.

    I’m so glad that people respect and admire the cost of our freedom.

    Thanks for the visit…and the comment!

  3. National ceremonies to important dignitaries are also held there. The first time I was there was July 4, 1976. Queen Elisabeth paid a visit and brought flowers. There were flags, honor guards, cannons, politicians, and people.

    Wow how cool would that be to see. I’m totally jealous.

  4. I’ve never seen the ceremony, and now I definitely want to go. I like that the sentinals for the graves of the unknown soldiers are considered highly regarded and that they don’t wear any insignia on their uniforms so as to not outrank the soldiers buried there. I love stuff like that. USA is so badass.

    neat hun!

  5. I have been fortunate enough to get to see this and it is amazing to watch!! i was only 13 and i even then understood the magnitude. i can’t wait til my kids get a little bigger and i can take them. D.C. is one of my fave places to visit!!

    *Oh what a great trip to take the kids on.

  6. I’m going to comment on johnrandals comment above. The full honor ceremony that you witnessed with Queen Elizabeth was while my husband (Badge #162) was on the mat walking (actually posted in the box). Now that is such a small and cool world huh??

    *wow that is way cool…I would love to sit down with that man and chat. What a great memory to have!

  7. Thanks of posting this. I have the privilege of shooting photos for the Tomb Sentinels. They are a great bunch of guys. (Currently, no female Sentinels at the Tomb 🙂

    If you go there, do yourself a favor and plan to stay through more than one Guard Change. You will see something different each time… Something you missed before. You can also change position… one to get close to the Rifle Inspection and one to get more on center of the plaza. Also, there are usually wreath ceremonies between the “top of the hour” Guard Changes.

    Some of my photos may be found here:

    For more information on the Tomb and the Sentinels, go to: (I am an Associate Member of the Society of the Honor Guard – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.)

    Thanks again for posting this info.


  8. I came across this site via a search on details concerning the Special Orders.

    I’ve visited Arlington more than once and seen the changing of the guard. Some people will say it’s “awesome” or “cool” or however they experience it. To me it is a humbling experience and an example of witnessing the dedication and discipline of the Guard, all of whom take this duty VERY seriously and consider it an honor above all else. Arlington itself is a humbling experience… as is The Wall. Been there too, looking up the names of some guys…

    I appreciate the Guard and their ongoing service to the representation of the patriots who served to protect and defend our nation.

    I lift my glass for a toast to The Republic, long may it live.


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