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Changing of the Guard - Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

In July of 2013, we traveled to Washington, D.C. and made out way over to Arlington National Cemetery. We had the privilege to witness the "Changing of the Guard" Ceremony while we were there.

We did capture some video during this event, and was able to put together a video documenting the ceremony. If you have never witnessed this before, you will be amazed by the following video.

The tomb guards are soldiers of the United States Army. The first military guards were troopers from the 3rd Cavalry, "Brave Rifles", who were posted nearby on Fort Myer. Since April 6, 1948, (known then as "Army Day"), when the regiment was reactivated, it has been guarded by soldiers from 3rd Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard". The Old Guard is also posted to Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. 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.

The soldier "walking the mat" does not wear rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. Non-commissioned officers (usually the Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commanders), do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform (without rank) that is worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are "posted."

The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial. The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or whom they perceive to be disrespectful or excessively loud.

There is a meticulous routine that the guard follows when watching over the graves. The tomb guard:

  1. Marches 21 steps south down the 63-foot-long (19 m) black mat laid across the Tomb.

  2. Turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds.

  3. Turns and faces north, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.

  4. Marches 21 steps down the mat.

  5. Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.

  6. Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.

  7. Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

After each turn, the guard executes a sharp "shoulder-arms" movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the guard stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

Out of respect for the interred, the sentinels command silence at the tombs. If the guard walking the mat must vocally confront a disturbance from spectators, or a threat, the routine is interrupted, and remains so until the disturbance is under control. The sentinel will exit the mat, place the weapon in port arms position, and confront the disturbance. Once under control, the sentinel then walks on the pavement to the other side of the mat, turns to shoulder arms, and resumes the routine from the point of interruption.

Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed-the 21-gun salute.

The mat is usually replaced twice per year: before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. This is required because of the wear on the rubber mat by the special shoes worn by tomb guards. The sentinels have metal plates built into the soles and inner parts of their shoes to allow for a more rugged sole and to give the signature click of the heel during maneuvers. The sentinels wear sunglasses because of the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater.

On the ground not covered by the mat, a rust pattern in the tile can be seen that corresponds to the precise steps taken during the changing of the guard. The metal from the guards' boots causes the brown rust markings on the stone. On the mat itself, footprints caused by standing guard are also visible.

Please let us know down in the comments if you have witnessed this ceremony before, or if you would like to attend it sometime in the future.

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