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Not long ago the final question on the TV program “Jeopardy” was: “How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns and why?” Guess what? All three contestants missed it and this reporter would have missed it too!
The answer is 21 steps which alludes to the twenty-one gun salute which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary. It is interesting to note a second question, not on Jeopardy. How long does the guard hesitate after he turns to begin his return walk and why? The answer to this is 21 seconds and for the same reason.
I never knew that the guard’s gloves are wet but they are moistened to prevent his losing the grip on his rifle. He doesn’t carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time but changes shoulders so the rifle is always away from the tomb. The guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, and 365 days a year.
For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb he must be between 5’10” and 6’1” tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30 inches. In other words, the guards are tall and very slender.
The guards must commit two years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. They can’t swear in public for the rest of their lives and can’t disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way.
After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on his lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb. There are only 400 wreath pins presently worn. The guards must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin.
The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt. There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.
During the first six months of duty, a guard can’t talk to anyone nor watch TV. All off-duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.
Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniform ready for guard duty. The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.
Although serving as President of the United States qualifies one to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only two former Presidents are interred there: William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy.