Dispelling Tomb Guard “Facts”

DrillMasterCommentary, Drill Teams, DrillCenter News, Honor Guard 23 Comments

Throughout the last 10 or so years I’ve received the following information through email from well-meaning people who know my love for drill. The information that has made its way around the wold through email and now on social media is riddled with misinformation.

On a side note, I saw the changing of the guard when I was 9, my uncle took me there and I was hooked the moment I saw those Soldiers.

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.


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.

False. Sentinels do not execute an About Face. After halting at either end of the mat, the Sentinel faces toward the Tomb pausing for 21 seconds, faces back down the mat and pauses for 21 seconds. He then changes the rifle to his outside shoulder (away from the Tomb) and steps off for another 21 steps and the whole process is repeated.

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

True. The gloves are white cotton or, in cold weather, black leather.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not? 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.

False, see 2, above.

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

False. The Guard is changed every thirty minutes during the summer (April 1 to Sep 30) and every hour during the winter (Oct 1 to Mar 31). 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.

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.

True on height. A Soldier’s waist is a Soldier’s waist. Soldier’s take part in physical training and are in good shape. That’s what matters.

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. They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform (fighting) or the tomb in any way.

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.

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.

False. The Tomb Badge is a breast badge and not for the lapel. The Sentinel receives a badge after completing training and passing tests. At nine months of Tomb Guard duty, the badge is permanent. They can do as they please, but the badge (not a pin) is not revoked unless the Sentinel does something so egregious as to reflect poorly on the Tomb. There are a small number of badges that have been revoked and nameplate removed from the wall (see image below).

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

Close, but no cigar. The shoes are standard issue leather upper and sole low quarters- both the upper and and outside of the sole are shined with hundreds of coats of polish. They are built up (single, double, or triple sole) 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 sole 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 thicker soles adjust Sentinel height as well and have absolutely nothing to do with the weather.

The soles have a steel tap on the toe and a “horseshoe” steel tap on the heel. This prevents wear on the sole. There is also the inside heel tap, what is called a “cheater” or “clicker”. It is a shank of steel attached to the inside of the face of the heel 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 and/or if there is a funeral close by). No voice commands – every thing is done in relation to the heel clicks and on specific counts.

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. A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred. Among the notables are: President Taft, Joe E. Lewis (the boxer) and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, (the most decorated soldier of WWII) of Hollywood fame. Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.

During training: no TV and studying- true. Talking is allowed.

How does the Guard rotation work? Is it an 8 hour shift?

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.

Is it true they cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives?


How many times will a Soldier be on duty during the shift?

Each Relief has a rotation during the 24-hour work day. This rotation is dependent on the number of Soldier-Sentinels who are proficient enough to guard the Tomb.  The standard is 3-4 qualified Sentinels, 1-2 Relief Commanders/Assistant Relief Commanders, and 1-2 Sentinels in training. Generally, the Sentinel will be on guard duty for a tour and have two tours off in between – then go out for another tour.  However, in extreme cases, Sentinels have been known to go back-to-back for the entire 24 hour shift.

There is a small green shack next to the Tomb. What is it for?

“The Box” is used primarily during wreath-laying ceremonies for the Sentinel to retreat to while flowers and Taps are being presented.  There also is a phone with a direct line downstairs to the Tomb Guard Quarters – this is used in times of emergencies or just to notify the next shift of something.

The modern location of the Box, at the photo’s right

Has anyone ever tried to get past the Tomb guards, or attempted to deface the Tomb?

Yes, that is the reason why we now guard the Tomb.  Back in the early 1920’s, we didn’t have guards and the Tomb looked much different. People often came to the cemetery in those days for picnics during which time some would actually use the Tomb as a picnic area (probably because of the view).  Soon after, 1925, they posted a civilian guard; in 1926, a military guard was posted during cemetery hours; and on July 1, 1937, this was expanded to the 24-hour watch. Since then, the ceremony has developed throughout the years to what we have today.

Today, most of the challenges faced by the Sentinels are tourists who want to get a better picture or uncontrolled children (which generally is very frightening for the parent when the Soldier challenges the child).

What happened to the soldier that was in the Tomb from the Vietnam War?


The remains of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier were exhumed May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, DoD scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. It has been decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown will remain vacant.

(DrillMaster note: I’m very humbled to say that my wife, then a USAF nurse, was part of the medical team that took care of the identification process.)


What is it like to guard in bad weather?

The guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (we call ourselves “Sentinels”) are completely dedicated to their duty of guarding the Tomb. Because of that dedication, the weather does not bother them. In fact, they consider it an honor to stand their watch (we call it “walking the mat”), regardless of the weather. It gets cold, it gets hot – but the Sentinels never budge. And they never allow any feeling of cold or heat to be seen by anyone.

Do you guard in a blizzard or a bad thunderstorm?

Yes but, the accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the Soldier is never put at risk. The Tomb Guards have contingencies that are ready to be executed if the weather conditions ever place the Soldiers at risk of injury or death – such as lightning, high winds, etc. This ensures that Sentinels can maintain the Tomb Guard responsibilities while ensuring soldier safety. It is the responsibility of the Chain of Command from the Sergeant of the Guard to the Regimental Commander to ensure mission accomplishment and Soldier welfare at all times.

It was erroneously reported that during Hurricane Isabel, the Sentinels were ordered to abandon their posts for shelter and that they refused. No such order was ever given. All proper precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the Sentinels while accomplishing their mission. Risk assessments are constantly conducted by the Chain of Command during changing conditions to ensure that soldier welfare is maintained during mission accomplishment.

Do you guard all night long, even when the cemetery is closed?

The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact, there has been a Sentinel on duty in front of the Tomb every minute of every day since 1937. And the Sentinel does not change the way he guards the Tomb, even at night when there is no one around. The Sentinels do this because they feel that the Unknown Soldiers who are buried in the Tomb deserve the very best they have to give.

Has a guard ever failed inspection?

Yes. Everyone makes mistakes. The Sentinel is failed (talked to by the Sergeant of the Guard) and returns to the guard quarters to fix the deficiency and try again. The Sentinel who is on the mat marches another tour.

Missed his Buff Strap.

How do the Soldiers get to and from the quarters without being seen?

Most wear civilian clothes – although the short, tight haircuts tend to give us away.

SGT Johnson

How many Sentinels have been female?

As of this writing, there have been 3 female Sentinels. The first female Sentinel was SGT Heather Johnson.

SGT Ruth Hanks

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
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
to 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 will in honored glory rest
under my eternal vigilance.

What happens when a Sentinel leaves the platoon and moves on to another duty?

The Sentinel walks the mat his or her last time, hands of their rifle, and proceeds to escort family members back out onto the plaza where the Sentinel places a rose at each crypt. This is called the Rose Ceremony. The Sentinel then escorts family back under the stairs.

U.S. Army Sgt. Dontae Skywalker, tomb sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknowns, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), lays a rose at the foot of one of the crypts March 25, 2013, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. The placing of a rose at the foot of each crypt signifies a Sentinels’ final honor before they leave The Tomb of the Unknowns. Skywalker served at the Tomb from September 2010 to September 2012. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr./Released)

And this from a former Tomb Guard friend of mine: “The biggest thing to consider, is that things change over the years…including height and belt requirements. Rotation schedules have also changed over the years as well. When I was there it was 24 hours on, 48 hours off rotation – now it’s more akin to a firefighter’s rotation. As for number of walks during a shift…again it changes over time. As standards are held to it’s highest, we have less qualified sentinels able to walk, over the years standards have changed to allow more soldiers to be “qualified”. One summer I worked we only had two qualified badge holders, and our relief commander. That required us to take 12 daylight walks in one shift, and night hours. This also then affects the Sentinel’s average tour of duty…during that time it was about 18-24 months. As you have more qualified Sentinels you take less walks during each shift and then the average tour goes up. I know Sentinels who were down there for 5 years! You typically don’t want to ever leave this duty…you work until your body gives out. I had 4 months of physical therapy which forced me to retire from this assignment.

A couple additional consideration for the changes, sometimes we were forced to change by leadership. There was a time (about 3 months) we were ordered to go back to FM 22-5, Drill and Ceremonies, (now TC 3-21.5) in the late 80’s. I know this has happened a couple other times after I left, from talking with Sentinels from other eras. Also, it seems that each generation of Sentinels conspire to do something a little different…and better…to raise the standards. For example, Sentinels I worked with worked on timing of certain segments of the guard change to time heel clicks (I know that’s not too specific, sorry it would be a lot to explain just what it was). Other generations made modifications to the bayonet and the Relief Commander’s Beretta…bringing in wood handles stained the same as the rifle stock. Finally, each relief (i.e., squad) from the same era will do things slightly different – timing, heel clicks, color of rifle stock, etc. We have a nice friendly competition going on among the reliefs!!”

Dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 11 November 1921

A simple marble crypt was originally placed over the World War I Unknown in 1921. But over the next few years, a lack of proper decorum was noticed at the Tomb resulting in the institution of civilian guards in 1923, with The U.S. Army taking over guard duty in 1926. That same year the United States Congress allocated funds for the building of an elaborate sarcophagus. The Tomb as you see it today was designed by Lorimer Rich, who was chosen from a competitive field of over 70 submitted designs, and sculpted by Thomas H. Jones. The cost to construct the sarcophagus was $48,000. It was made entirely out of white marble from the Yule Marble Quarry in Marble, Colorado, and was completed on April 9, 1931. The Tomb is broken into seven different parts weighs 79 tons:

– Sub-base: 15 tons, 4 pieces
– Base: 16 tons, 1 piece
– Die: 36 tons, 1 piece
– Cap: 12 tons, 1 piece

Comments 23

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  1. I just review guard change video I recorded on July 17, 2011.
    After the walker opens the bolt and immediately as the changer snatches the weapon I captured what appears to be a casing thrown toward the garden and landing on the plaza between the garden and the mat. To be clear, it was not the bolt action that ejected the object, but the changer’s slap.
    What are your thoughts on this?
    Thank you.

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      1. Thanks for the quick reply, I have not posted it.

        I will clip a small section of it and place it in a private YouTube link and send it to you.
        (I only found it a few weeks ago on an old SD card.)

        I do volunteer work at ANC with the MDFF and SHGTUS to honor my family’s multi-generational service to the U.S. Army and I don’t want a video like that to cause any undo speculation regarding the post.

        Can you provide a email address to keep the link private?

        In the meantime, please enjoy this 3-view I made featuring SSG Hanks.
        (I also provide links in the description to accurate Tomb Guard information.)


  2. Ive attended personally and watched numerous walks of tomb guards. As a U.S. Army veteran, I wanted to ask ,why the guards didn’t execute standard military facing movements, namely the ” about -face”? They are making quarter turns if I’m correct..i appreciate any insight. Many thanks for your service and knowledge.

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      Mr. David,

      I appreciate your service to our country and your great question. Why do the Tomb Guards do things differently?

      The plaza is a one-of-a-kind place. The setting demands something unique. If you notice at each end of the mat, the guard faces (left or right) only toward the crypt, counts to 21, faces again, this time down the mat, another 21 counts, and marches 21 steps.

      If the guard were just to make a usual About Face, it would seem very impersonal as if the unknowns are just a thing like a gate to be guarded. Having the Sentinel face the Tomb at each end of the mat and rendering salutes towards the crypts includes the three men buried there who represent all unknowns from each conflict. The ceremony then becomes much more personal and full of a great deal of mening.

      I hope that helps to answer your question.


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      The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution located in Washington Square in Philadelphia, PA was vandalized on June 23rd 2020. The National Parks Service coordinated with professional conservators to remove the graffiti.
      The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located in Arlington National Cemetery has never been vandalized to my knowledge.

  3. I’m glad I found this page, and on Veterans Day too! We were discussing the traditions of the Tomb in a Veterans forum I frequent and someone posted this link. I’m glad that Lt. Blassie was mentioned and the reason we don’t have an Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War and will never have an Unknown from any subsequent wars. I served aboard the USS Brewton (FF-1086) from 1980 through 1984 and made the transit carrying Lt. Blassie’s remains from Pearl Harbor to Alameda. It was truly a great honor.
    Tom Lawler (MM2 USN 1979-1985)

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  4. The question, Please. Why would anyone publish ‘FACTS’? or information about the gaurds that is not true? I served in the USAF from 1953 through1955. My father was in the army for WWI and served in France. He taught me about Arlinton Cemetery and showed it to me when I was 12 years old. I never forgot. I was there in 2014 and showed it to my grandson. I hope he never forgets. Thank you, Merle Wright

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      Mr. Wright,

      I don’t know exactly why someone would publish untrue information, but I can take an educated guess.

      1. Some people love to lie and pass on false information.
      2. Others rely purely on memory and think that they are remembering exactly what they were taught decades ago. (This happens on a daily basis for drill and ceremonies in general.)
      3. Still others just don’t care if they are accurate or not.

      That’s all I can think of to possibly explain the false information that I was sent through email numerous times that you see in the article above.

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  5. Pingback: Why does the old guard keep day and night vigils at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? – The Millennial Mirror

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      Mr. Harris,

      I was never a Tomb Guard, just to be clear. I have a friend who was and we both discussed the false information that has made its way around the internet several times.

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  6. Thank you, I am a Vietnam Era Veteran and a Patriot Guard Rider. We proudly ‘Stand for those who Stood for us’ by escorting funeral processions and stand flag lines at the cemetery for the Family. We also attend many other functions in honor of our Veterans. Recently we (PGR in Redding, CA) were invited to a local Junior High for a Respect for Veterans educational program for the students. The Principal recited the duties of the Soldiers at the Tomb and I knew some of the information was not true. I will pass your information onto her in order for her to properly edit her version.

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