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; it has never been officially named. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States of America. The World War I “Unknown” is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations’ highest service awards. The U.S. Unknowns who were interred are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by the U.S. presidents who presided over their funerals.
The tomb guards are soldiers of the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. 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. This attrition rate has made the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded decoration of the United States military (the first being the Astronaut Badge).
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 who 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, including M1903 Springfield rifle, M1 Garand and M14 rifles, M1911 .45 ACP and M9 9mm Beretta pistols. Tomb Guards currently carry M14 rifles, which are unloaded and affixed to ceremonial rifle stocks (hand-made by Tomb Guards). These rifles are cleaned daily and kept ready for use at all times.
Walking the mat
There is a meticulous routine which the guard follows 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 weapon 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.
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.
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 wear pattern in the tile can be seen that corresponds to the precise steps taken during the changing of the guard. On the mat itself, footprints worn in by standing guard are also visible.
(Part I of IV)