ARLINGTON, Va. — Known for its impeccable precision, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is one of Arlington National Cemetery’s most popular attractions.
Played out every half-hour during the cemetery’s summer schedule and every hour the rest of the year, the ceremony marks the end of one sentinel’s tour of “walking the mat,” and the start of another’s. The scene typically produces a hushed awe from onlookers as they watch the sentinels perform their duties with meticulous exactness. Every footstep, hand placement and eye movement is measured.
The elite tomb guard unit is responsible for safe-guarding the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The platoon is made up of 31 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Also known as the “Old Guard,” the regiment primarily serves as the official U.S. Honor Guard, performing ceremonial duties for the White House, Pentagon, Arlington and other national memorials in the Washington, D.C., area.
Ensuring nothing dishonorable happens at the tomb is a top priority. “The biggest fear sentinels have is that something might happen to the tomb … to the unknowns,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tanner Welch, sergeant of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknowns Soldier Platoon. “Somebody could throw a can of paint or something at the tomb. And for a sentinel, to have that desecration and disrespect toward the unknowns happen on their watch … that’s probably their number one fear.”
After serving in the 3rd Infantry Regiment for six months, soldiers are allowed to apply for specialty platoons such as the tomb guard unit. All that’s required, noted Welch, is some “old-fashioned discipline.” Many try out but few are chosen for the job.
“Nothing we do here is rocket science,” said Welch, 30. “It’s just very basic tasks done to a very high standard.”
The high standard that so impresses the crowds is a barrier that nine out of every 10 soldiers who apply to be in the platoon are unable to hurdle. The 10 percent who do make it in have typically been through about eight months of rigorous training.
The training includes a series of uniform tests, knowledge tests and outside-performance tests.
On the uniform portion of the training, the amount of “deficiencies” trainees are allowed on their uniform inspections dwindles until, on the final test, only two “minor deficiencies” are allowed. Minor deficiencies are anything between 1/64th of an inch to 1/32nd of an inch off from the standard. Anything more than 1/32nd of an inch off is considered a major deficiency, and would automatically cause a trainee to fail the program.
For the knowledge test, trainees are required to memorize a 17-page instructional pamphlet. On the final knowledge test, they’re allowed a maximum of 10 deficiencies. It may sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, Welch noted that if a trainee missed just one comma per page that would be almost double the allowable deficiencies. And, yes, punctuation marks count.
On the outside-performance test, trainees again are allowed just two minor deficiencies on their final test. Some of the gradable testing points include the following: the angle the feet are positioned when standing or walking, the length of stride, the cadence or synchronization of movements during the guard change, the placement of hands, body posture, head and eye alignment, eye movements. “The list goes on and on,” Welch said.
To the casual observer, the guards are dressed in uniforms seemingly groomed to perfection. Their every stride appears to be made in flawless synchronization. Yet, to the trained eye of the inspecting team leader, any deviation from the rigorously enforced standard is marked down as a deficiency.
“It’s incredibly humbling to know that everything you do is for somebody else,” said Welch, speaking of the dedication and devotion the sentinels must show to have the privilege of standing guard for the unknowns. “There’s a lot of time spent being told, ‘You don’t meet the standard, you don’t meet the standard, you don’t meet the standard.’ When you finally get to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, you met the standard, now continue that in somebody else’s name,’ it’s a great thing.”
The values of selfless service, loyalty, discipline, honor and integrity that the sentinels strive to perfect in their duties as tomb guards has a strong attraction for those who visit Arlington. Two sentinels in Welch’s platoon were inspired to become tomb guards when they viewed the changing of the guard while visiting Arlington as children. What’s amazing, he said, is they are now inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Welch spoke of Sgt. Scott Khimani, one of his sentinels who was inspired as a child to become a tomb guard. In the performance of his duties, Khimani so inspired one young man that he wrote an email to Welch expressing how impressed he was with the discipline and esprit-de-corps Khimani demonstrated. That young man hopes to join the military and become a tomb guard, Welch said.
“Understanding that there is a large amount of discipline, training, dedication to something that is not for personal gain really attracts a lot of people," said Welch, "especially in today’s day and age where everything is about how much can I get right now? How quick can I get it? What can I do with it to get more? People are attracted to the opposite of that, where guys are doing the most that they can do … They’re putting out the best that they can be for little to no reward to themselves … It speaks to a lot of people in what they hope the world will be like. …
“You know, if more people were like tomb guards, the world would be a better place.”