Visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
By Marv Kohlbeck
Most veterans who have taken part in the Never Forgotten Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., will agree with me that the most memorable military display is at the Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of white identifiable crosses dot the landscape, and in one section of the cemetery, military guards perform 24-7 at the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Our central Wisconsin group that made the trip in May of 2013 had the opportunity to have one of the honor guard volunteer some of his free time to answer questions following his daily obligations. He handled the questions about what seemed so foreign to us with ease.
Very briefly, his commentary indicated that to be selected, guards must be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 2 inches tall, and their waist size cannot exceed 30 inches. A guard must commit two years of military life to guard the tomb.
Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror to make sure there are no wrinkles, folds, or lint on the uniform.
Shoes are specially made with thick soles to keep the heat and cold from the soldiers’ feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoes in order to make a loud click as they come to a halt.
Guards are changed every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That performance in itself is very impressive.
The guards’ half-hour duty includes taking 21 steps in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
Upon completion of the 21 steps with a rifle carried on the shoulder opposite the tomb, a guard stops for 21 seconds and then makes an about face to return 21 steps in the opposite direction with the rifle then carried on the opposite shoulder.
During their 30 minutes of duty, guards wear moist gloves to prevent losing grip on their rifles.
Viewers are requested to maintain silence during the entire performance.
The guard we spoke to admitted that some of the stiff regulations of bygone years — such as not being able to marry — have been lightened, but he emphasized how proud he and other guards have felt to be chosen and to be among the select few who have experienced this honor.
As others view this military site, there is no doubt in my mind that it will continue to be one of the most memorable experiences that will remain in their mind as well.