Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

By John Harlow and Kevin M. HymelArlington National CemeteryMay 19, 2022

Tomb guards from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) perform the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., May 10, 2022.
Tomb guards from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) perform the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., May 10, 2022. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Fraser) VIEW ORIGINAL

Day and night, a U.S. Army sentinel from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—the “Old Guard”—walks back and forth in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Their moves are exact. They do not smile, do not slouch, and do not flinch.

The sentinel, or guard, walks twenty-one steps along a rubber mat on the plaza in front of the Unknown from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, as well as an empty crypt, honoring those lost in Vietnam. A sentinel’s shift lasts an hour (a half hour in the summer), until he or she is relieved in a changing-of-the-guard ceremony.

But what is a sentinel thinking the entire time they are walking in front of the Tomb? “You’re thinking about so many things about your outside performance,” explained Staff Sgt. Chadwick Winget, the Relief Commander. “My rifle angles, counting my twenty-one seconds, how I’m walking, and trying to make sure my walk stays nice and smooth.” Winget who joined the Old Guard in 2020 and began training as a sentinel in January of 2021, has “walked the mat” almost forty times and has conducted approximately 1,100 guard changes. According to him, most senior walkers in the sentinel platoon have between 800 to 1,000 walks.

“A good Tomb Guard is out there not letting their minds wander.  They’re thinking about looking their best to honor the Unknowns,” said Winget, who prefers walking the mat to changing the guard, which is a more complex ceremony. Whereas, with walking the mat, “there’s less to focus on while you’re out there.”

Sometimes, the sentinels scrape their metal heel on the ground as both a tribute and means of communication. Since sentinels cannot salute anyone on the plaza they scrape their heel, sometimes at veteran Honor Flight groups or other military personnel. “It’s just a show of respect,” said Winget. Other times, they use scrapes and “cheater bumps’—hitting the metal plates inside their heels together—to communicate with another sentinel. “We can have a whole conversation with each other out on the plaza just by the different scrapes.”

Sentinels also use a phone booth-sized tent, to the left of the Tomb, called “the box” to call the Tomb Quarters, where other sentinels monitor activity on the plaza and prepare for their turn outside. “The phone immediately rings downstairs,” said Winget, “and they can communicate with us about any kind of emergency.” The box also contains a spray bottle so sentinels can spray water on their gloves to keep a tight rifle grip.

When visitors break the rules, the sentinels are always ready to react. According to Winget, people rarely disrupt the calm intentionally, but sentinels address the crowd an average of two or three times a day to keep the peace. “It’s usually just them being oblivious,” he said. “They’re talking and not realizing how loud they’re being, or laughing or making jokes amongst their group. It detracts from the other people that are trying to pay their respects.”

Sentinels occasionally deal with wild ones. A squirrel once darted into Winget’s path while walking the mat. “I legitimately thought was about to crawl up my leg,” he recalled. “It got very, very close.” Worse than squirrels were 2021’s cicada bugs, which crawled all over the sentinels while they marched or changed guards. The sentinels, of course could not react. “That was insane,” he added. “We’d have cicadas crawling all over us the whole time we were out there.”

Amazingly, it only takes a sentinel five minutes to put a uniform and head out the door. “Anything can happen on the plaza,” said Winget, “so we have to be ready to get somebody off the plaza as quickly as possible.” First, a sentinel can change from a polo shirt and slacks into his uniform in three minutes—referred to as a three-minute-go. It takes another two minutes to put on the belt, holstered pistol, hat, sunglasses, and gloves. The sentinels immediately change guards if the weather suddenly changes or someone drops a medal from their uniform. “Usually, we’ll unpost that person,” he explained. If it starts raining, “we need somebody in a raincoat to get out there and get them off.”

Despite the weather, crowds, and nature’s creatures, Winget and his fellow sentinels stand ready to protect the unknown from America’s wars. Theirs is an important and constant task, one they that they take seriously, and one for which they do not smile, slouch or flinch.