On a recent re-run of Jeopardy, the question was asked: ‘How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns?

I certainly didn’t know the answer, didn’t even know there was a specific number, and it made me think back to when I was privileged to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and it’s a very solemn and stirring sight. A uniformed officer explained the meaning to the gathered crowd and exactly what is going to happen. He explains that everyone is expected to remain silent and not speak during the exchange which takes a very short time considering what an important event it is. Filming was allowed and I captured the event with my Kodak 8 mm. The film still exists, old as it is.

On March 25, 1926 orders were sent down directing the formation of an armed military guard at the Tomb, during daylight hours because visitors to the cemetery were using the original crypt as a picnic table.

On July 2, 1937, the guard was increased in size, and ordered to begin 24 hour shifts.

Here are some facts I’m certain hardly anyone knows and after learning them, you may have more than a little respect for the men chosen for this patriotic task.

The guard takes 21 steps during his walk in front of the tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary. Before his about face to begin his return walk, he hesitates 21 seconds, for the same reason.

His gloves are wet, moistened to prevent his losing his grip on his rifle. He carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb except when he executes the about-face. Then he moves it to the outside shoulder.

Guards are changed every 2 hours, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, since 1930.


He must be at least 22 and have the rank of Private First Class through Specialist

He must be between 5’10” anda 6’2”; his waist size must not exceed 30”. There are three Reliefs (divided into heights) and one can tell the time by which the height of the Relief is working:

1st Relief 6'2" to 6'4"

2nd Relief 6' to 6'2"

3rd Relief 5'11" to 6'

For 2 years, he will live in a barracks under the tomb and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of his life. For the first six months, a guard isn’t allowed to speak to anyone or watch TV. In off-duty hours, the guard spend his time memorizing the 175 notable people buried in Arlington Cemetary.

He cannot swear in public for the rest of his life and cannot disgrace the uniform or tomb by any word or action.

After 2 years, he is given a wreath lapel pen a guard must obey the above rules for the rest of his life or give up his pin.


The uniform must have no wrinkled, folds, or link. Shoes are specially-made with thicks soles to keep heat in and cold out. They have metal heel plates extending to the top of the shoe to make the loud click as they come to a halt. Guards dress in front of a full-length mirror. Every guard spends 5 hours a day getting ready for guard duty.


Even during Hurricane Isabelle in 2002, when guards were permission to leave the tomb, they respectfully refused and continued to perform the highest honor given to service personnel.


  1. Judy // November 21, 2011 at 7:40 AM  

    Fascinating, Toni! It's a tall order to fill the requirements for such a job! That's for filling us in on those aspects...

  2. Pamela Varnado // November 21, 2011 at 8:10 AM  

    Toni, I had no idea the sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns had to make a lifetime commitment, but I understand why it's necessary and applaud them for choosing this sacred path. Thanks for sharing this with me. It is really fascinating, and I would love to see the guards change one day up close.

  3. Mary Marvella // November 21, 2011 at 6:11 PM  

    I watched that ceremony once, too. Amazing and stirring! Thanks for the details, 'cause I didn't get them at the time.

  4. Scarlet Pumpernickel // November 22, 2011 at 6:50 PM  

    Toni, I tried to leave a comment yesterday to tell you how much I like your blog. Didn't happen because AOL and Blogger were hating on each other. Anyway, great essay and thanks for sharing!

  5. Josie // November 25, 2011 at 9:34 PM  

    What a beautiful blog and tribute. You shared a lot of information that I was not aware of.