Arlington National Cemetery:  The Old Guard
The Old Guard stands in place of the servicemen and friends
unable to do so personally for their fallen comrades.



By:  Marv Rodney

The Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery

In the January issue of ENDEAVOR, we discussed the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.  In this issue, I will provide an overview of the Old Guard’s role in guarding the Tomb of the

Unknowns as well as meaningful aspects of this ceremonial display of respect. The Tomb of the Unknowns is a monument dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified.  It is also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, although it has never been officially named.  The U.S. Unknowns who are interred are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by the U.S. president who presided over their funerals. 

The 3rd United States Infantry Regiment is a regiment of the U.S. Army and is readily identified by its nickname, The Old Guard.  The Regimental motto is Noli Me Tangere (from Latin:  Touch Me Not).  In addition to the marching platoons, there are also elements of The Old Guard that serve special roles unique both to the regiment as well as the U.S. Army.  Being selected to serve in this special platoon as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns is considered one of the highest honors.  Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those, only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards.  This attrition rate has made the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded decoration of the U.S. Military (the first being the Army Astronaut Badge). 

The soldier guarding the Tomb is known to be walking the mat and does not wear a rank insignia, as it would be inappropriate to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their rank may have been.  The tomb guards 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 six hours to prepare his/her uniform – heavy wool regardless of the time of year – for the next day’s work. 

In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also conduct physical training, Tomb Guard training, participate in field exercises, cut their hair before the next work day, and at times are involved in regimental functions.  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 nearly 300 graves and who is buried in each one. 

The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial.  The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb, or are disrespectful or loud.  Over the years there have been several different types of weapons used by the Tomb Guards.  The changes in weapons reflect the changes in the Army.  Tomb Guards currently carry M14 rifles, which are unloaded and affixed to ceremonial rifle stocks (hand-made by Tomb Guards).

The Sentinel Guard follows a meticulous route when watching over the graves.  The Tomb Guard:

  • Marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb.
  • Turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds.
  • Turns and faces north, changes weapons to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
  • Marches 21 steps down the mat.
  • Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.
  • Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
  • Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard. 

A Member of the Old Guard placing an American Flag on the graves at Arlington

After each turn, the Guard executes a sharp shoulder-arms movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors.  This places the Guard between the Tomb and any possible threat.  The ceremonial twenty-one steps and seconds symbolize the highest military honor that can be bestowed—the 21-gun salute.  The rubber mat is usually changed twice per year due to wear;  before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day.   The sentinels wear sunglasses because of the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater.  During the summer months, the guard is changed every half hour.  During the winter, the guard is changed every hour.  After the cemetery closes to the public, the guard is changed every two hours. A mounted unit of The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery


This issue concludes my series of articles on the history of Arlington National Cemetery.  It has been my pleasure to write about this historic cemetery as well as some of the monuments and sites located therein.   Reproduction of this article in whole or in part requires the written permission of the ENDEAVOR news magazine.


The above information was extracted in part from The Official Website of Arlington National Cemetery, the US Army, & Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  

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