The idea for today’s column came from Craig Crusickshank.
You take 21 steps, click your heels, turn, click your heels, wait 21 seconds, turn, change hands, wait 21 seconds, and take another 21 steps, and repeat the whole process for the next thirty minutes in summer, every hour in winter, and every two hours at night. Your uniform is immaculate; there are no wrinkles, folds or lint. You spent eight hours preparing your uniform for duty and dressed in front of a full-length mirror. While the shoes you are wearing are standard issue military dress shoes, they are built up so the sole and heel are equal in height. This allows you to stand so that his back is straight and perpendicular to the ground and allows you to move in a fluid fashion. If you do it correctly, your hat and bayonet appear not to “bob” up and down with each step. The soles have a steel tip on the toe and a “horseshoe” steel plate on the heel. This prevents wear on the sole and allows you to move smoothly. Then there is a “clicker”. It is a shank of steel attached to the inside of the face of the heel build-up on each shoe and allows you to click your heels during certain movements. The gloves you are wearing are wet so you don’t lose the grip on the rifle you are carrying.
To qualify for your honored position you have had to exhibit certain physical traits. You height is between 5′ 11” and 6′ 4” tall and your waist size cannot exceed 30 inches.
The average duty of duty is one year, though some stay longer and others a shorter amount of time; there is no set time limit. Rumors that you cannot ever drink or swear in public are false.
Who are you? You are one of the numbers of Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C.
In preparation to take this position you have been trained and driven so hard, the washout rate is 80%. Only the best, the elite of the Army, get the honor to serve as you do. You don’t mind the heat, the cold, the wet, because only a few handpicked people have done what you do. As the result of your training you know how to flawlessly perform seven different types of walks, honors and ceremonies.
And besides the training for what is called “The Walk,” you have to intensively studied the 176 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. You had to memorize who they are and where they are interred. Among the notables are: President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President Howard Taft, the world famous boxer Joe Lewis, and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII and of Hollywood fame, and recently Senator Edward Kennedy.
A Tomb Guard Identification Badge is awarded after the Sentinel passes a series of tests. The Badge is permanently awarded after a Sentinel has served 9 months as a Sentinel at the Tomb. Over 500 have been awarded since its creation in the late 1950’s. It is to be worn on the right pocket, and not on the lapel as believed by many. However, the badge can be revoked for very serious offenses, such as the conviction of a felony.
Stories came out in the news that during Hurricane Isabelle in 2003, Guards were ordered to stand-down and refused, but no such order was ever issued. However, in spite of the dedication of the Sentinels to their job, their safety is first concern. Commanding officers keep a watch on a lot of variables like lightning, blizzard, high winds and other hazards and will do what is necessary to ensure the safety of the Guards.
The Tomb has been patrolled continuously since 1937. To date there have been three female Sentinels.
The Guards even have non-profit organization called the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They state their purpose is, “expressly for and wholly committed to protecting and enhancing the welfare and image of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers who stand guard, past and present.”