- The soldier walks 21 steps across the Tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary in America. His weapon is always on the shoulder opposite the Tomb (i.e., on the side of the gallery watching the ritual).
- On the 21st step, the soldier turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.
- The soldier then turns to face the other way across the Tomb and changes his weapon to the outside shoulder.
- After 21 seconds, the first step is repeated.
This is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.
The mat is usually replaced twice per year: before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. This is required due to the wear on the rubber mat by the special shoes worn by Tomb Guards. The guards 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 guards are issued sunglasses, which are formed to their faces, due to 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 hours and hours of standing guard are also visible.
Changing of the Guard
During the day in summer months from April 1 to September 30, the guard is changed every half hour. During the winter months, from October 1 to March 31, the guard is changed every hour. After the cemetery closes to the public (7pm to 8am April through September, and 5pm to 8am October through March), the guard is changed every two hours until the cemetery reopens. The ceremony can be witnessed by the public whenever Arlington National Cemetery is open.
The guard change is very symbolic, but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The relief commander or assistant relief commander, along with the oncoming guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The guard being relieved will say to the oncoming guard, “Post and orders remain as directed.” The oncoming guard’s response is always, “Orders acknowledged.”
The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2, 1937. Inclement weather does not cause the watch to cease.
The Tomb Guards, a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) work on a team rotation of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for five days, taking the following four days off. A guard takes an average of 6 hours to prepare his uniform (which is solid wool regardless of the time of year) for the next day’s work. In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also complete physical training, Tomb Guard training, cut their hair before the next work day, and shave twice per day. Tomb Guards are required to memorize 16 pages of information about Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, including the locations of nearly 300 graves and who is buried in each one.
A special Army decoration, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is authorized for wear after passing a detailed test of 100 questions (from a pool of more than 300), a uniform test with two gigs (errors) or fewer (measured to the 1/64″), and a test on the guard changing sequence. After serving honorably for a period of nine months, and having passed the sequence of tests, a Tomb Guard is permanently awarded the Badge. Since 1959, many men have completed training and been awarded this Badge, as well as three women. A small number of Tomb Guard Identification Badges have also been retroactively awarded to soldiers who served as Guards before 1959. Those numbers make the Badge the second rarest award currently issued in the United States Army; only the Army Astronaut Badge is rarer.
The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is the only badge awarded by the United States Army that can be revoked after a soldier has left the military. The Regimental Commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment has the authority to revoke a Badge from any Guard (past or present) for any act that would bring discredit upon the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The badge was designed in 1956 and first issued to members of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns on February 7, 1958. The badge was first issued only as a temporary wear item, meaning the soldiers could only wear the badge during their tenure as members of the Honor Guard. Upon leaving the duty, the badge was returned and reissued to incoming soldiers. In 1963, a regulation was enacted which allowed the badge to be worn as a permanent part of the military uniform, even after the soldier’s completion of duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns.