The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., is guarded 24 hours every day, 365 days per year, in all types of weather conditions by specially trained Sentinels (The Old Guard), the eldest active-duty Infantry Unit in the Army. They are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Army Infantry. The Tomb contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict and, until 1998, the Vietnam War. Each was presented with the Medal of Honor at the time of interment, and the medals, as well as the flags that covered their caskets, are on display inside the Memorial Amphitheater, directly to the rear of the Tomb.
The History of the Changing of The Guard
Acceptance in The Old Guard's Company E does not assure a new volunteer that he will become one of the fewer than 400 soldiers in the last 45 years to earn the distinctive Tomb Guard Badge. Before a soldier is allowed "a walk," he must memorize seven pages of history on Arlington National Cemetery and then recite it verbatim. If a soldier completes this phase and is granted "a walk," he enters a new phase of training known as "new soldier training." In addition to extensive training in the manual of arms, the guard change ceremony, and the intricacies of military ritual, the new soldier is required to memorize additional history on Arlington, including the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans.
Each soldier must be physically fit for the demanding responsibility and be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches tall with a proportionate weight and build. It may take months for a soldier to earn the right to wear the prestigious Silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge, and even then, the award is only temporary. Only after the Sentinel has served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for nine months does the award become permanent. One of the Army's rarest emblems, the badge features the inverted laurel and a replica of the east face of the Tomb where Greek images represent the virtues of Victory, Valor, and Peace.
The changing of the guard ceremony is conducted every hour in winter and every half hour during summer daylight hours to provide visitors sufficient opportunity to view one of the U.S. Army's proudest traditions. As the active sentry nears the end of his walk on the mat, a uniformed relief commander enters the plaza to announce the changing of the guard. When the Sentinel for the next walk leaves the guards' quarters, he unlocks the bolt of his M-14 rifle to signify that he is ready to begin the ceremony.
The relief commander approaches the Tomb, sharply and slowly salutes, the faces the visitors and asks for complete silence during the ceremony. As the new Sentinel approaches, the relief commander solemnly and with excellence in precision conducts a white-glove inspection of the Sentinel's rifle. The two men then march in cadence to the center of the mat where the duty sentinel stops his walk, and all three soldiers salute the Tomb.
The relief commander instructs the active Sentinel, "Pass on your orders." The Sentinel replies, "Post and orders, remain as directed." The relieving Sentinel responds, "Orders acknowledged." He then steps into position at the black mat. As soon as the relief commander passes, the new Sentinel begins his own walk, 21 paces south, turn and pause for 21 seconds, turn and pace 21 steps north, and then repeats the actions without distraction until he is relieved by the next changing of the guards.
I had the privilege and honor to speak with Sgt. Jeffrey Binek, a Sentinel who graciously shared some insight.
Do women soldiers serve as Sentinels?
Yes, but at the present time we don't have any serving.
Where do the Sentinels live?
All of the Sentinels reside in the barracks at Fort Myers, Va.
How many Sentinels are on active duty at this time?
We have 35 to 40 Sentinels presently serving.
How many training/recruiting sessions are conducted on an annual basis?
We have approximately four to five training periods each year, numbering from six to 50 new volunteers. At present we have a full contingent of Sentinels.
Are volunteer Sentinels recruited from all the branches of our military?
New Sentinel volunteers are strictly vetted from the Old Guard (Army).
Are there circumstances or situations where a Sentinel leaves before fulfilling his commitment?
Yes, mostly for medical issues. This type of duty wears heavily on the knees and back. Other than that we honor our tour of duty.
Typically what does a Sentinel do after completing his two-year commitment?
Many of us go to Officers Candidate School or join Special Forces/Green Beret.
Why do civilians/tourists get caught up with regulations imposed on a Sentinel?
Most visitors are taken up with the regulations we as a Sentinel must adhere to rather than the Sentinel's primary duties. We do it in honor of our fallen soldiers.
What is asked of the visitors attending the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the wreath-laying ceremony?
We emphasize total silence during these two solemn ceremonies. When we can hear noises or distractions from the mat, it's too loud.
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In talking about the Sentinels it is important to note a major figure in the program, Reginald J. Mason, Chief Ceremonial Support Branch-Ceremonial Activities Division-United States Army Military District of Washington. Mason was born and raised in Norfolk, Va. He attended Catholic schools and graduated in June of 1972. Upon his graduation he immediately joined the U.S. Army, arriving at Fort Jackson, S.C., where he completed basic training and advanced individual infantry training. Additional training took him to Fort Belvoir, Va., for combat engineer training.
Throughout his illustrious 24-year career, Mason served in a variety of infantry/leadership positions, including platoon sergeant, battalion operations sergeant, first sergeant, and battalion senior instructor. One of his proudest moments was serving as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Upon his retirement he pursued a career in the federal government. In his present position, he plans, coordinates, and oversees the execution of official military ceremonies and special events within the National Capitol Region, which includes the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Pentagon. Arlington National Cemetery itself is, of course, the setting for many emotional funerals and memorials for service men and women who have passed.
Military Funeral Customs
The most frequent ceremony performed at Arlington National Cemetery is always deeply emotional and intense. It reaches to the depths of one's heart and rekindles that special spirit of the one being interred.
The gift of a floral wreath at a memorial site is a ritual that takes place around the world. It transcends every culture, walk of life and creed. The floral tribute speaks of both the beauty and sacredness of life as well as memories of days gone by. This ceremony takes place each day at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Playing of "Taps"
"Taps" is the most beautiful bugle call. Played slowly and softly, it has a smooth, tender and touching character. It has become not only a signal that day is done, but also to say symbolically goodbye to a fallen soldier in arms. Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more to stir emotions than the call of "Taps." The melody is articulate and deeply moving, reaching to the depths of one's heart and soul.
God bless America. God bless our brave men and women who protect our freedoms and our lives. They are heroes and warriors who defend our democracy. To them we owe much and can never fully repay their service to our country.