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Tidbits from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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On a recent assignment to interview a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guard at Arlington National Cemetery, I learned an overwhelming amount of historic facts and cool information that didn't quite fit into my story for print.

Below are some fascinating facts I wanted to share.

Qualifications to be a tomb guard/sentinel:
- A guard must demonstrate a high level of maturity, responsibility and time-management. They also must have high scores, be in good physical shape and score higher than a 270 on their annual physical fitness tests. An aptitude for training and ceremonial duties is also a huge plus.
- A soldier can "walk the mat" and guard the tomb as a guard, but to become a sentinel, you have to pass all the final tests required, including: knowing answers to 300 questions about cemetery history, being able to write 17 pages verbatim of tomb history, and showing knowledge of the ceremony movements and uniform requirements.
- There are three relief shifts for guard duty at the tomb. These reliefs are separated by height. The minimum height requirement is 5 feet10 inches. First relief is for those more than 6 feet tall. Each relief has eight people assigned to it.
- There can be no more than 10 mistakes total in the final guard test.
- Practicing the movements of a tomb guard is done in front of three mirrors in the tomb guard quarters for two hours a day (three hours in winter). They watch for the way their hat sits, the way they move their head, the angle at which they hold their rifles, etc.

- Every piece of a guard's military-issued dress uniform is altered in some way for the high standards of tomb guard.
- A guard's shoes are hand-polished to a high shine; they are the only battalion to still polish shoes by hand. This process can take upwards of 50-60 hours to complete on a brand-new pair of shoes.
- The guards use everything from automotive primer to spray paint and wet sanding techniques to polish and transform their equipment. The scabbard, for example, uses some of these methods and can take upwards of 200 hours to transform it from military-issue to "tomb guard approved."
- The distance between a guard's uniform badges, patches and awards has to be within 1/64th of an inch. They use a special ruler with these markings to measure everything.
- During the changing of the guard ceremony the guards wear metallic "cheaters" on their shoes to make a metallic clicking sound when they bring their heels together to turn and face the tomb. They do this to honor the first cavalry soldier platoon that guarded the tomb and wore spurs that made a clicking noise when they walked.
- The high standards set for the appearance of a guard's uniform and the way they conduct the changing of the guard ritual have not changed since the inception of the tomb guards.
- There are winter uniforms and raincoats that guards can wear in cold and inclement weather. The sun and rain always ruin their shoes, and it is a constant battle to maintain their uniforms.

'The Old Guard' 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment
- "The Old Guard" is the only regiment allowed to carry fixed bayonets on their rifles while passing in review at all parades. This practice dates to the Mexican War in 1847 when the 3rd Infantry led a successful charge on the enemy at Cerro Gordo.
- "The Old Guard" participates in more than 6,000 ceremonies a year.
- The black-and-tan "buff strap" worn on the left shoulder is a replica of the knapsack strap used by 19th-century predecessors of the unit who used them to distinguish themselves from other units.

Change of the guard ceremony
- The guards walk 21 steps and pause for 21 seconds because the number 21 symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed - the 21-gun salute.
- A guard can enter the green guard house at any time to call the guards on duty in the tomb guard quarters.
- If someone tries to enter the ceremony area, a guard will announce: "It is requested that all visitors remain behind the rails and chains." If visitors disrupt the ceremony in any way, the guard will stop the ceremony and announce: "It is requested that all visitors maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect."

Fun facts
- A typical assignment as tomb guard is two years, including training. A guard can serve multiple times, and some have served up to three tours at the tomb.
- Three women have served as tomb guards.
- Currently, the youngest tomb guard is 19, and the oldest is a 34-year-old trainee.
- There are no soldiers that rank higher than a sergeant first class, and no officers are assigned to this platoon.
- Tomb guards are the only battalion allowed to wear sunglasses with their dress uniform during ceremonies. Historically, guards who first watched over the tomb suffered damage to their eyes due to the glare that comes off the granite walkway. Oakley makes a special line of polarized glasses for them that can only be worn on duty and are not sold to the public.
- Guards can change their uniform in three minutes if the need arises.
- A "walker" is the guard "walking the mat" in front of the tomb, and the "changer" is the soldier who changes out the guard during the ceremony.
- When the bells announcing the top of the hour chime, a guard yells "time" in the guard quarters. On the first chime the guard is exiting the door.
- When a guard leaves quarters, they push a red "exit button" to unlock the door. They push it the number of times to total the relief shift they are assigned to (three times for third relief, etc.).
- All guards are part of the 3rd Regiment, and though most that hold the post are in the infantry there also have been Military Police, cooks and medics.
- A guard's tomb identification badge can be revoked at any time, even after retiring from the military, if they are found to be dishonorable. The name plaque on the wall of identification badges in tomb quarters will be replaced with the word "Revoked" and the badge number only.
- Guards are not allowed to smile until they have returned to quarters after a shift outside performing a ceremony.

Read the full story and see more photos here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014