Forever Faithful

Still Standing Guard:  Today was the first snowfall of the year at Arlington National Cemetery and, as always, the Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were standing guard.

3rd Infantry Regiment Old Guard
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington National Cemetery
U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser

The U.S. Congress adopted “the American continental army” on June 14, 1775
Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, march to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,
as part of the Army’s 233rd birthday tribute.
Arlington National Cemetery, VA
June 14, 2008

The military guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is changed in an elaborate ceremony which happens every hour on the hour from October 1 through March 31, and every half hour from April 1 through September 30.

Twenty-four hours a day, soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” stand watch over the Tomb. The Tomb Guards, also called Sentinels, are chosen for this prestigious and highly selective post only after rigorous training and a demanding series of examinations. The Old Guard has held this distinguished duty since 1948.

An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the changing of the guard. Soon, the new Sentinel leaves the Tomb Guard quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle, signaling to the relief commander to begin the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and remain silent during the ceremony.

The Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia,
June 15, 2018
U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery

The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving Sentinel meet the retiring Sentinel at the center of the black mat in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknown Soldiers who have symbolically been given the Medal of Honor. The relief commander orders the relieved Sentinel, “Pass on your orders.” The current Sentinel commands, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The newly posted Sentinel replies, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position on the mat. When the relief commander passes, the new Sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

The Tomb Guard marches exactly 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process.  (The number 21 symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed, the 21-gun salute).  Next, the Sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that he or she stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

When not “walking,” the Tomb Guards spend their duty time in quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater, where they study cemetery history, clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the changing of the guard.

Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stand watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather. Sentinels, who volunteer for this post, are considered the elite of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), headquartered at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia.

After members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment become ceremonially qualified, they are eligible to volunteer for duty as Sentinels at the Tomb. If accepted, they are assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for men or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for women, with a proportionate weight and build.

Would-be Tomb Guards must first undergo an interview and a two-week trial. During the trial phase, they memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a “walk.”

If a soldier passes the first training phase, “new soldier” training begins. New Sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony, the manual of arms, and methods for keeping their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition.

The Sentinels must pass multiple tests to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms knowledge, uniform preparation and walks. Then, they take the badge test, consisting of 100 randomly selected questions from the 300 items memorized during training. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct.

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is a temporary award until the badge-holding Sentinel has honorably served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for nine months. At that time, the award can become a permanent badge, which may be worn for the rest of a military career. The silver badge is an upside-down, laurel-leaf wreath surrounding a depiction of the Tomb’s front face, the words “Honor Guard,” and figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor. Over 600 Tomb Guards have earned the badge since the late 1950s.

Silver Badge of the Honor Guard
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb Guards work on a three-relief rotation; each relief has one commander and about six Sentinels. The three reliefs are organized by height, so that those in each guard change ceremony look similar in appearance. The Sentinels wear the Army dress blue uniform, reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800s.


The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment

3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard)


The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, serving the United States since 1784. The Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the President, it also provides security for Washington, D.C. in times of national emergency or civil disturbance. The unit received its name from Gen. Winfield Scott during a victory parade at Mexico City in 1847, following its valorous performance in the Mexican War. The black-and-tan “buff strap” worn on the left shoulder replicates the knapsack strap used by the unit’s 19th-century predecessors to distinguish its members from other Army units.

The Old Guard annually participates in more than 6,000 ceremonies, an average of 16 per day. Despite this arduous schedule, The Old Guard also continuously prepares for its security and infantry missions by conducting year-round training. All soldiers are as familiar with traditional infantry or military-police duties as they are with ceremonial duties.

Historical Summary

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved a resolution providing for the burial of an unidentified American soldier, following the custom adopted by other allied countries after World War I. The site was to be the plaza of Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, which had been dedicated the previous year.

WWI Unknown

On Memorial Day, 1921, an unknown was exhumed from each of four cemeteries in France. The remains were placed in identical caskets and assembled at Chalon sur Marne.

On October 24, Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger, wounded in combat and highly decorated for valor, selected the unknown soldier for World War 1 by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. Those remaining were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France. The Unknown Soldier then returned home to the U.S. to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day. On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies at the Amphitheater.

The monument which rests on top of the Unknown grave is a sarcophagus simple but impressive in its dimensions. Its austere, flat-faced form is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set unto the surface.

Sculpted into the panel which faces Washington are the three figures of Valor, Victory, and Peace. On the plaza face the words “Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”

WWII Unknown

On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the Unknown Soldiers of World War II and Korea on Memorial Day 1958. The World War II Unknown was selected from 19 remains exhumed from military cemeteries in Hawaii, Europe, and the Philippines.

Two Unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theatre and one from the Pacific Theatre, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the U.S.S. Canberra, a guided missile cruiser resting off the Virginia capes. Hospital Man First Class William R. Charette, then the Navy’s only active duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War II. The remaining casket received a burial at sea.

Korean Unknown

Four unknown Americans who had lost their lives in Korea were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Master sergeant Ned Lyle, U.S. Army made the final selection. Both the caskets arrived in Washington on May 28, 1958 where they lay in the Capital Rotunda until May 30.

That morning they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor and the Unknowns were interred in the Plaza beside their comrade of World War 1.

Vietnam Unknown

Twenty six years later, on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, after a search made difficult because of advances in technologies used to identify the remains of unknown soldiers, President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment ceremony for the Vietnam Unknown service member. Like his predecessors, he was laid to rest in the plaza of the Tomb during a ceremony that received national coverage.

3rd U.S. Army Infantry Assumes Guard

Originally a civilian watchman was responsible for the security of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then, March 24, 1926, a military guard from the Washington Provisional Brigade (forerunner of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington) was established during the day-light hours. In 1948 the 3d U.S. Infantry “The Old Guard” assumed the post following the units reactivation in the nation’s capital. Members of the 3d Infantry’s Honor Guard continue to serve in this distinguished duty today.

A soldier seeking the honor of serving as a sentinel at the Tomb must possess exemplary qualities, to include American citizenship, a spotless record, and impeccable military bearing.

While on duty the sentinel crosses a 63-foot rubber surfaced walkway in exactly 21 steps. He then faces the Tomb for 21 seconds, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The 21 is symbolic of the highest salute accorded to dignitaries in military and state ceremonies.

As a gesture against intrusion on their post, the sentinel always bears his weapon away from the Tomb.

Only under exceptional circumstances may the guard speak or alter his silent, measured tour of duty. He will issue a warning if anyone attempts to enter the restricted area around the Tomb, but first will halt and bring his rifle to port arms.

The Guard wears the Army Dress Blue Uniform, reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800’s. Tomb Guards are privileged to wear the Tomb Identification Badge on the right breast pocket. The design is an inverted open laurel wreath surrounding a representation of the front elevation of the Tomb. The words “Honor Guard” are engraved at the base of the badge. A guard leaving after at least nine months of service is entitled to wear the badge as a permanent part of the uniform.

One Legion Battalion

Most of the battalion’s leaders pictured below, are ‘hand-selected’ from across the Army to serve in the Old Guard. They are confident, competent leaders who are all committed to  their Soldiers, the mission and to ceremonial excellence, and train non-stop for this ‘no-fail’ mission. I am humbly grateful to be their commander and am extremely proud to serve with each and every one of them; America’s finest!  …it’s not what we have to do, it’s what we have the privilege to do!’

Rich Towner
Battalion Commander at 1st Battalion, 3rd US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard)

One Legion Battalion of the Old Guard
Rich in its history and tradition, the leaders and soldiers of the battalion serve with pride and honor, as part of the oldest active duty Infantry Regiment in the Army, dating back to 1784.

One of the most versatile, capable and diverse units in the United States Army, the One Legion Battalion of the Old Guard. Rich in its history and tradition, the leaders and Soldiers of the battalion serve with pride and honor as part of the oldest active duty Infantry Regiment in the Army, dating back to 1784. Stationed just outside of our nation’s capital and in support of the Military District of Washington, our mission is to conduct memorial affairs in honor of our nation’s fallen heroes, conduct ceremonies and special events that represent our Army and communicate its story to our nation’s citizens and the world, and on order, execute assigned contingency missions across the National Capital Region.






About Karen Evans

Advocate For Honoring Military Service
This entry was posted in American History, American Veterans and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Forever Faithful

  1. Mike Sinnott says:

    Very interesting information about this elite ceremonial guard.

  2. GP says:

    As much as I read, Karen, you continue to teach me. Thank you. You help keep Patriotism ‘in style’!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s