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’The Old Guard’ ensures peace in final rest


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.’s, Arlington National Cemetery is guarded by Tomb Guard Sentinels 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather. Sentinels chosen are the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” and headquartered at Fort Myer, Va. It is also the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army, serving since 1784.

There are three reliefs, each having one relief commander and six sentinels. Each sentinel must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record, and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with a proportionate weight and build.

Through the use of an elaborate ritual, during the summer months April 1 through Sept. 30 the sentinels rotate walks every half-hour during the day. However, during the winter months Oct. 1 through March 31 the sentinels rotate walks every hour during the day. Throughout the night, the sentinels rotate walks each hour, year-around.

For these changes, an impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the “Changing of the Guard.” Soon the new sentinel leaves the quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal the commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the visitors and asks them to stand and remain silent throughout the ceremony.

He conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknown. The relief commander then orders the relieved sentinel, “Pass on your orders.” The current sentinel commands, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The newly posted sentinel replies, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position on the black mat. The new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

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. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on his shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. The number 21 is used because the 21-gun salute is the highest military honor granted.

The “Old Guard” is the Army’s official ceremonial unit and also provides security for Washington, D.C., in time of national emergency or civil disturbance. It received that unique name from Gen. Winfield Scott during a victory parade in Mexico City in 1847 following its valorous performance in the Mexican War.

Since World War II, the Old Guard has also served as the official Army Honor Guard and escort to the president. In that capacity, 3rd Infantry soldiers are also responsible for the conduct of military ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon, national memorials, and elsewhere in the nation’s capital. They also provide military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery and participate in parades at Fort Myer and Fort Lesley J. McNair.

Another distinction of the Old Guard is their custom of passing in review with fixed bayonets during parades. This practice, sanctioned by the War Department in 1922, also dates to the 1847 Mexican War when the 3rd Infantry led a successful bayonet charge against the enemy at Cerro Gordo. This distinctive custom is reserved for the Old Guard alone.

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