Guarding Heroes

First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Twenty-one steps, turn, click, 21-second pause, turn.
Twenty-one steps, turn, click, 21-second pause, turn.

The precise movements and subtle sounds a sentinel makes over and over during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery are what make it so moving.

The synchronicity of the movements - often in mirror reflection; the sounds the rifles make when they are moved from one shoulder to the other - always facing away from the tomb as a gesture against intrusion on their post; and the metallic sound the "cheaters" on their shoes make as they click their heels and turn for the 63-foot walk in front of the tomb all signify a sentinel is on duty.

These practiced moves are a small part of the thousands of hours of training needed to perform this ceremony 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Service, faith and family are why U.S. Army Spc. Steven Carr joined the Army in 2012. Carr, fourth-generation military from an Irish-Catholic family, grew up in nearby Damascus, Md. He has been assigned to the tomb since September 2012, and after eight months of rigorous mental and physical training, he had the honor of joining 623 other sentinels who wear the tomb badge.

Serving as a sentinel is the "highest honor I can imagine as a ceremonial duty in the Army, and the highest honor one can receive," said Carr. "To guard the unknowns, who represent all the unknowns who have died, it's more than myself, it's huge."

The tomb sarcophagus honoring an unknown World War I soldier was erected in 1921. Sculpted into the panel that faces Washington are these words, "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." Crypts of unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were added later.

The tomb has been guarded since 1926 by civilian watchmen and military guards. Soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," assumed 24-hour duty in 1948.

A tomb guard wears the Army dress blue uniform - reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800s. Guards spend hundreds of hours altering the military-issued uniform for the unique duty of tomb guard.

They can spend upward of 200 hours alone painting, polishing and sanding the scabbard they wear on their hip, and an additional 40 to 60 hours shining their shoes to a high polish. They are the last Army platoon to shine their shoes by hand.
Line six of the Sentinel's Creed is: "My standard will remain perfection." Every guard memorizes this 99-word creed, and lives by it.

Guards wear no rank or name on their uniforms so they do not dishonor those buried without recognition of name or rank and because "it isn't about the individual," Carr said. "You look the same as the others."

After nine months of service at the tomb, sentinels are eligible to wear the tomb identification badge. The badge is engraved with the words "Honor Guard" at the base, and it is worn on the right breast pocket. It can be worn for the remainder of their military career.

Any man or woman in "The Old Guard" can apply for a guard spot when there are openings. To qualify as a tomb guard, one has to pass multiple tests including: memorizing more than 300 questions on cemetery history and being able to write out by hand 17 pages of tomb history verbatim. Carr said the guards can "get to headstones in the dark by heart" if they have to.

A guard has to be in good physical shape, have high test scores, meet a minimum height requirement, be an American citizen, have a spotless military record and have impeccable military bearing.

Guards work 26-hour shifts from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m., in a five-day day-on, day-off pattern followed by four days off. Duty time, when not "walking," is spent in the tomb guard quarters below the Memorial Amphitheater, where they study cemetery history, maintain quarters and help others prepare for duty.

"Your body doesn't like it, but you get used to it," said Carr. "You catch sleep when you can, drink a lot of coffee and keep each other awake on shift."
"Those who fail training are ones who didn't want to put in 100 percent."

Carr uses a military-provided daily devotional for prayer to get him through his duty hours when he isn't "walking the mat." During initial training in the middle of the night he spent a lot of those hours praying while practicing to "walk."
During ceremonies for the public, however, his focus is on one thing - the mission.

He said during the changing of the guard ceremony you have to "push everything out of your head and focus on the mission. You are always going to be looking for the next cue - toes scraping on the ground, the click of heels, the sound of the rifles - to retain your focus, help yourself and the other guards to be better."

The guard's mission is twofold - they maintain 24-hour watch over the tomb, and they perform upwards of 19 wreath-laying ceremonies a day. Because this mission is so demanding, these are the battalion's only orders. Carr said that the thing that gets him out of bed every morning and keeps him coming to work and putting in the long hours is simple: "A soldier is never dead until he is forgotten, and tomb guards never forget."

If you go
The changing of the guard is performed every hour on the hour from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Oct. 1 to March 31, and every half hour from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from April 1 to Sept. 30.
For more information go to arlingtoncemetery.mil.


Read more tidbits of info and fun facts about the tomb and the guards.

Sentinel's Creed
Every tomb guard memorizes the following 99-word creed. They live by these words, and line six of the creed references the level of care they take with their appearance, "My standard will remain perfection."

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.
- Simon, 1971

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014