Thursday, February 27, 2014

Known But to God

Linda Farmer Harris

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Sentinels of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, Company E — "The Old Guard"

In researching mansions in the Arlington Virginia area, I read about the Custis-Lee Mansion; also called the Arlington. House.

Its construction began in 1802 and was intended to be a living memorial to George Washington. After a fascinating history filled with political notables, the grounds were appropriated for a military cemetery in 1864. The property is now administered by the National Park Service. Over 250,000 people are interred there.

 I enjoy Jeopardy and watch reruns as often as I can. One evening on Jeopardy, the final question was "How many steps does the Guard take during his walk at the Tomb of the Unknown?" All three contestants missed it!

Have you ever had the opportunity to watch the march or the changing of the Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Do you have family interred at the Arlington Cemetery?

Here’s what I learned about the Sentinel's walk. I had to stop and get a Kleenix©. You might want to be prepared.

1. How many steps does the Sentinel take during his walk on the path of the tomb of the Unknown?
Answer: The Sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. The 21 steps mirror the twenty-one gun salute that is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

2. How long does the Sentinel hesitate after his about-face to begin his return walk?
Answer: 21 seconds for the same reason as answer number 1

3.Why are his gloves damp?
Answer: The gloves are moistened to prevent lose of grip on the rifle.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time?
Answer: The rifle is carried on the shoulder away from the tomb as a symbol of the rifle being between the tomb and any potential enemy. After the march across the path, an about-face is executed and the rifle is moved to the outside shoulder.

5. How often are the Guards changed?
Answer: Guards are changed every hour on the hour from October 1-March 31. From April 1 to September 30 the Guard is changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

6. What are the physical traits limitations of the Guard?
Answer: For a person to apply for Guard duty at the tomb, he must be between 5 ' 10 ' and 6 ' 4 ' tall with proportionate build and weight.

Other requirements of the Guard

They must commit 2 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. They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way.

• After two years, the Guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as Guard of the tomb. As of 2004, there are only 400 being worn. The Guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin.

• The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt.

• There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror. Every Guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.

• The first six months of duty a Guard cannot talk to anyone nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A Guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.

Among the Presidents and other notables interred are:

• Mary Roberts Rinehart - America's first woman war correspondent during World War I for the Saturday Evening Post; wrote mystery novels, including The Circular Staircase and The Bat; in 1921 was referred to as "America's Mistress of Mystery."

•  Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, U.S. Army - Dr. McGee was the first woman Army surgeon in 1898 and founder of the Army Nurse Corps in 1900. (section 1, site 526B

• Mary Randolph - First recorded person buried on the grounds that became Arlington Cemetery. She is a cousin of Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, wife of George Washington Parke Custis, builder of Arlington. She wrote The Virginia Housewife, a housekeeping and cook book. (section 2, site S-6)

The Sentinels Creed: My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted. In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter. And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability. It is he who commands the respect I protect. His bravery that made us so proud. Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

In 2003, as Hurricane Isabelle was approaching Washington, DC, our US Senate/House took 2 days off with anticipation of the storm. On the ABC evening news, it was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment. They respectfully declined the offer, "No way, Sir!" Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment, it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a service person. The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.

All pictures courtesy of the 
U.S. Army, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia

Read more about these honorable Sentinels at


Lin writes historical fiction for adults and children. She and her husband, Jerry, live on a hay and cattle ranch in Chimney Rock, Colorado. Her current historical series Voices in the Desert about the Southwestern Indian Detour Couriers is set in New Mexico. Book One: Treasures Among the Ruins features Cornelia Miller, a recent college graduate, who is searching for self-identity apart from a strong political, socially prominent family. Lin's enjoyment of genealogy and family history adds unique elements to her stories.


  1. Lin, I learned so much from this! I had NO idea the code of conduct was so stringent. It takes a special soldier to do this! Thanks for this interesting blog post!

    1. Hi Laurie, thank you so much for your comments. There was so much incredible information I didn't include because of space. These are amazing soldiers.

  2. You got me at the hurricane. The tears flowed. I actually saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guards. There was something going on with a ceremony but I forgot what about and that brought tears. Thank you for the post, some of the things I didn't know.
    Karen G.

    1. You are most welcome, Karen. I hadn't realized the extent and demand placed upon these soldiers and how they willingly accept those responsibilities. On the next Veterans Day, I'm going to be looking for the Honor Guard pen on the uniforms of former Sentinels.

  3. Lin, thanks for the beautiful post. What an honor to live in a country where these young men are willing to serve so selflessly. Makes one proud to be an American. Great post! I wish I'd known all this when we went to Arlington. Such an interesting post!

    1. Thank you, Debbie. The attention to detail, the intense focus, and degree of readiness is unbelievable. I have difficulty imagining that level of devotion. It does put a new perspective on the events at the Cemetery.

  4. Lin, Thank you so much for all of the details about Arlington. It is truly one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in our country.
    The guards are to be commended for their faithful dedication and sacrifices.
    I have not been there to visit but have been by it.
    It has been a desire of my son who just retired from 25 years as a Marine to be laid to rest there when He goes home to glory someday.
    Thank you for the beautiful article

    1. Thank you, Jackie. Twenty-five years of service as a Marine is a noble and challenging life. Your son will certainly add to the august company surrounding him. Thank him for me for his service, and thank you for being a faithful Marine mom.

  5. This was fascinating! I knew they were dedicated, but had no idea it went so deep! My family was able to watch the changing of the guards back in 2001. Thanks for the very interesting article.

    1. Hi, Brittany. Thank you for your comments. I'm glad there is somewhere in our nation gone haywire that we can honor the service of our soldiers and demonstrate that reverence in such a tangible way.

  6. I have been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but never knew all these details. You have done an amazing job telling the guards' story. I would like to see the Tomb again and appreciate all these details next time. Sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi, Sharon. Maybe I will see you there. I certainly have a new appreciation for the Guards. Before I did the research, I was operating under the assumption that these men were simply doing a day's duty while they were moving through their military hitch. Now, with this and all the other information I learned that didn't get in the article, I'll never see these men and the cemetery with anything but pride and admiration.

  7. Hi Linda! I've been to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier 2x but have watched the changing of the guards 4x - the second time I went I was early 20's and I was just too fascinated with it I stayed for 3 changings! Thank you for such a beautiful post, I didn't know any of these facts until tonight. I admire these men for taking and keeping to all of the commitments they take.
    Off the subject, I think we could possibly be distant relatives! I can't find your contact info on your website or I'd mention this more privately! (I asked last month but you never replied to my comment.
    The following link is of the Farmer family from AR I come from. Second generation #8: Jennie Belle Farmer is my great-grandother. Would love to hear back from you at:
    kam110476 (at) gmail (dot) com

    1. Hi Kristen, thanks for you comments about the Guards. They are amazing men. I, too, have a new appreciation for their service. I'll emailed you privately so we can check out our Farmer connection.

  8. That is awesome. What dedication. I only feel bad that soldiers returning from duty and those that don't make it, aren't afforded nearly as much respect as the Unknown Soldier.

    1. Thank you, Dana. I agree with you. My family men who served since WWII really feel unknown, and severely unappreciated. I was watching the life story of George M. Cohan this morning and thought that we ought to revive "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag" to remind this young generation of where we've been and renew American patriotism.