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The Old Guard: Protecting the Tomb of the Unknowns Since 1937

Since the Revolutionary War in 1775, nearly 1.5 million American men and women have given their lives to protect the freedoms and interests of the United States of America. And over those last 231 years, the U.S. Army has learned what it means to truly commemorate those that have fallen in battle, by establishing the Tomb of the Unknowns.

In 1921, shortly after World War I, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation to dedicate the site of the tomb to represent all missing and unknown service members who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives, as well as their identities, to protect the freedoms we hold so dear. It is the final resting place for unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and it is guarded at all times. Those guards are some of the very best soldiers the Army has to offer.

The Old Guard

In service to the U.S. since 1784, The Old Guard, which is part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. And since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official U.S. Honor Guard unit and escort to the President, as well as maintaining its certification as an infantry unit for combat roles.

While applying for The Old Guard can be done by almost any military occupational specialty (MOS), standards for acceptance are quite high. Old Guard recruits must adhere to some specific intangible traits, including height, weight, physical fitness, aptitude scores and conduct.

Because these soldiers are considered to be the most suitable to represent the U.S. at home and abroad, they are always in the public eye.

The Elite

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and since July 2, 1937.

That’s how long it’s been since the Tomb of the Unknowns has been without a guard. The assignment itself dates back to 1926. That is why when picking Tomb Guards from The Old Guard’s ranks, only the very best are chosen and trained for sentinel duty. But it’s not an easy job to do, or earn. A sentinel at the Tomb must possess impeccable qualities including a spotless military and civilian record and flawless military bearing. Many of the soldiers who begin training for Tomb duty ultimately fail because of the high standards. For example, sentinels must be able to recite, verbatim, 35 pages of information on the history of the Tomb — including punctuation.

Tomb guards are some of the most recognizable military figures in the world, so their rotation in front of the tomb has to be perfect. Sentinels may not speak or alter their silence unless to issue a warning to those attempting to access restricted areas, they must always bear their weapon away from the Tomb, and they must walk a very specific path as they traverse the 63-foot rubber walkway in front of the Tomb. Each crossing of the mat is exactly 21 steps. The Guard then faces the Tomb for 21 seconds, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The 21 is symbolic of the highest salute accorded to dignitaries in military and state ceremonies.

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