Facts about the Tomb of the Unknowns

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery:

How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns and why?

Twenty-one steps. It alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

How long does the guard hesitate after his "about face" to begin his return walk, and does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not?

He does not execute an about face. He stops on the 21st step, then turns and faces the tomb for 21 seconds. Then he turns to face back down the mat, changes his weapon to the outside shoulder, counts 21 seconds, then steps off for another 21-step walk down the mat. He faces the tomb at each end of the 21-step walk for 21 seconds. The guard repeats this continually until he is relieved at the guard change.

How often are the guards changed?

The guard is changed every 30 minutes during the summer (April 1 to Sept. 30) and every hour during the winter (Oct. 1 to March 31). During the hours the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every two hours. The tomb is guarded, and has been guarded, every minute of every day since 1937.

Is it true guards must commit two years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb and cannot drink any alcohol on- or off-duty for the rest of their lives?

No, this is false. The average tour at the tomb is about a year. There is no set time for service there. Guards live either in a barracks on Fort Myer (the Army post located adjacent to the cemetery) or off-base if they like. They do have living quarters under the steps of the amphitheater where they stay during their 24-hour shifts, but when they are off, they are off. And if they are of legal age, they may drink anything they like, except while on duty.

Has anyone ever tried to get past the Tomb guards or attempted to deface the tomb?

Yes, that is the reason why the tomb is now guarded. Back in the early 1920s, there were no guards, and the tomb looked much different. People often came to the cemetery in those days for picnics, during which time some would actually use the tomb as a picnic area (probably because of the view). Soon after, 1925, they posted a civilian guard; in 1926, a military guard was posted during cemetery hours; and on July 1, 1937, this was expanded to the 24-hour watch. Since then, the ceremony has developed throughout the years to what it is at present. Today, most of the challenges faced by the guards are tourists who want to get a better picture or uncontrolled children.

What is it like to guard in bad weather?

The guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are completely dedicated to their duty of guarding the tomb. Because of that dedication, the weather does not bother them. In fact, they consider it an honor to stand their watch (they call it "walking the mat") regardless of the weather. It gets cold; it gets hot, but the sentinels never budge.

Do they guard in a blizzard or a bad thunderstorm?

Yes, but the accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the soldier is never put at risk. The tomb guards have contingencies that are ready to be executed if the weather conditions ever place the soldiers at risk of injury or death — such as lightning, high winds, etc. It ensures that guards can maintain their responsibilities while ensuring safety. It is the responsibility of the chain of command — from the sergeant of the guard to the regimental commander — to ensure mission accomplishment and soldier welfare at all times. It was erroneously reported that during Hurricane Isabel, the guards were ordered to abandon their posts for shelter and that they refused. No such order was ever given.

How many guards have been female?

There have been three female guards.

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