The Tomb Guard
Serving at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Tomb) was a defining period in the lives of Tomb Guards. Although Tomb Guards come from every state in the United States of America (U.S.) and every walk of life, they are forever bonded through their shared experience of service at the Tomb. A strong bond was formed through an extremely demanding and humbling experience.
Tomb Guards are handpicked and rigorously trained. The duty at the Tomb is not for everyone, with the majority of soldiers who begin Tomb Guard training failing. Tomb Guards describe their service as a privilege and an honor, and are undeniably proud of their service. They are part of an unbroken chain of soldiers dating back to 1926. The ideals of the Tomb became the Guidepost for their lives, as well as a motivating factor and measuring stick for future endeavors.
The Sentinel’s Creed is the Tomb Guard standard. The 99 words of the creed capture the true meaning of their duty. You will often hear the words “Line-6” proudly uttered by Tomb Guards as they converse with each other or with their chain of command.
The Sentinel's CreedMy 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.
Tomb Guards are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, The Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military still in service. After a valorous performance in the Mexican War, the Old Guard received its unique name from General Winfield Scott during a victory parade in Mexico City in 1847. The Old Guard has a long history of service to the U.S., from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War.
Since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official "U.S. Honor Guard" unit and "Escort to the President", as well as maintaining its certification as an infantry unit for combat roles. In that capacity, Old Guard soldiers are responsible for conducting military ceremonies at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), Pentagon, national memorials and elsewhere in the nation’s capitol. In addition, these soldiers defend civil authorities in Washington D.C. and support overseas contingency missions. The Old Guard recruits soldiers based on certain intangible traits, and with requirements for height and weight, physical fitness, aptitude scores, and conduct. These soldiers are considered to be the most suitable to represent the U.S. at home and abroad, and the Tomb Guards are considered the best of this elite unit.
The Old Guard is comprised of three battalions 1, with two of them residing at Ft. Myer. The battalions are organized in several companies to fulfill their mission, and the following specialty platoons:
- The U.S. Army Drill Team
- The U.S. Army Continental Color Guard
- The U.S. Caisson Platoon
- Presidential Salute Battery
- Pershing's Own
- The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps
and the most recognized platoon:
The Tomb is comprised of three Tomb squads "reliefs", 1st, 2nd and 3rd Reliefs. The reliefs are organized based on height, so that the Tomb Guards are similar in size during the Changing of the Guard. Although the Sergeant of the Guard can organize reliefs based operational needs.
The mission of the Tomb platoon is:
- Responsible for maintaining the highest standards and traditions of the United States Army and this Nation while keeping a constant vigil at this National Shrine, and;
- Whose special duty is to prevent any desecration or disrespect directed toward the Tomb.
To become a Tomb Guard, an Old Guard soldier must volunteer by applying for appointment to the Tomb through the Sergeant of the Guard. To be considered for an appointment, the soldier must be highly motivated and disciplined, and possess a strong military bearing and soldierly appearance.
If appointed, the soldier is assigned to the Tomb for an initial two week training period. The period focuses on basic Changing of the Guard sequences, uniform preparation, and memorization of a basic "knowledge" packet about the Tomb and ANC. At the conclusion of the two weeks, the soldiers are tested in these areas. If they pass, they are assigned to one of three reliefs as a trainee for an intense training period. If they fail, they are assigned back to their company.
Upon reporting to a relief, the trainee is assigned a Tomb Guard trainer. The trainer is a mentor who is expected to mold the trainee into a Tomb Guard. The trainer informs the trainee of what is expected of them, including following strict rules, training guidelines, and the need for complete dedication and commitment to the Tomb. Then the trainer teaches, monitors, inspects, and test the trainee during the training cylce.
The training cycle is intense, consisting of a series of five exhaustive tests over six to twelve months. The tests focus on outside performance (Changing of the Guard, and "Walking the Mat" 1), uniform preparation, and knowledge. Outside performance tests on weapons manual, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, and orders. Uniform preparation tests on Tomb uniform standards 2 for the Army Dress Blues, Shoes "Spits", glasses, and brass and metals. Knowledge tests on 35 pages of information on the history of the Tomb and ANC, for which the trainee must recite verbatim - including punctuation.
The tests are progressive, demanding quantifiable improvement and demonstrated performance. If the trainee completes the training cycle and passes the tests, they will be able to flawlessly conduct seven different types of ceremonies, to meet the highest standards of uniform preparation, and recite 35 pages of information without error. If the trainee fails any test, they are assigned back to their company.
The successful trainee is awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (Badge), and will be referred to thereafter as a Tomb Guard - and affectionately known by their peers as "Badgeholder". The Badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the U.S. military, trailing only the Astronaut Badge. The Badge is the only military badge that can be revoked for any action that brings disrespect to the Tomb during the lifetime of the Tomb Guard.
The relief is lead by a Commander of the Relief (Staff Sergeant) who is responsible for the operation, welfare and morale of the relief. Ideally, the relief will consist of two teams, each consisting of an Assistant Relief Commander (Sergeant) and four additional Tomb Guards for a total of nine soldiers. The relief is lead and supported by Tomb Headquarters, consisting of the Platoon Leader (Lieutenant), Sergeant of the Guard (Sergeant First Class), Assistant Sergeant of the Guard (Staff Sergeant), the primary trainer and a driver.
The Platoon Leader oversees the administrative and operational functions of the Tomb. In addition, they serve in various ceremonial functions on the company level. The Sergeant of the Guard oversees the same day-to-day functions, mentors and develops junior Non-Commissioned Officers, and conducts presidential wreath laying ceremonies.
The three reliefs are on duty utilizing 24 hour rotational shifts. The Tomb Guards' day begins at 5:00 A.M. with arrival at the Tomb Quarters 1 for duty. The Tomb Guards will inspect the quarters, prepare their uniforms, review orders, and receive their duty assignments.
At 6:30 A.M., the Tomb Guards inspect the trainee's readiness and uniforms. If a trainee meets relevant standards, the Tomb Guard may allow them to walk the morning "bolo" 2 at 7:00 A.M. The evening "bolo" will be the final change and walk of the day.
During the hours of the day ANC is open to the public, the Tomb Guards will perform several Changing of the Guard and wreath laying ceremonies, and Walking the Mat. During summer hours, the Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every half-hour, and during winter hours every hour. Although all walks are sacrosanct, the most coveted walk for a Tomb Guard is the noon "Noon Moon" 3 walk. Tomb Guards also conduct retreat and retire the colors in accordance with the military tradition.
During the same time, the trainees perform "mirror time" 4, conduct uniform preparation, study knowledge, check-in wreaths, and alert the Tomb Guards of the next Changing of the Guard by performing a "quarter till" 5.
The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. So, after the evening "bolo", non-ceremonial changes and walks in battle dress uniforms are performed until the next morning's "bolo". During this time, the Commander of the Relief usually conducts entire relief training. With repetition and meticulous attention to detail the relief works together on the various sequences emphasizing uniformity and cohesion. These night hours are the time when the trainees hone their skills. The mechanics of guard duty come naturally to very few. Trainers spend countless hours providing feedback and teaching the nuances of guard duty.
- The Tomb Quarters is located below the Memorial Amphitheater, and is where the Tomb Guards live and work during their duty time. ↩
- The term bolo stands for "be on the look out", and is first and last guard change and walk prior to public ANC hours. The Tomb Guard may allow a trainee to walk the mat in full ceremonial uniform as practice. ↩
- The "Noon Moon" walk is coveted because it is the most visited, and therefore highest profile, Changing of the Guard and Walk of the day. ↩
- "Mirror-time" is part of Tomb Guard training when the trainee practices weapons manual and movements in front of several ceiling to floor mirrors in the quarters. ↩
- The "quarter till" alerts the Tomb Guards of the next Changing of the Guard, and is also a time to present Tomb Guards with special knowledge "high-speed" or certain motivation for the privilege of Walking the Mat. ↩