I received an email recently and the title of it was “Jeopardy question no one could answer”. The question was – How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Apparently no one on the show knew the answer. I wish I had been on the show because I would have gotten at least that one question right! The answer is 21 steps.
This brought me back to the two trips I took to Washington, DC, once with my oldest daughter on her 7th grade trip and once with my youngest daughter on her 8th grade trip. Both times we visited Arlington Cemetery, visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched the changing of the guard. This is how I knew the answer to the Jeopardy question. The 21 steps represents the twenty-one gun salute which is the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary. The guard also hesitates 21 seconds before he turns and does an about face to begin his return walk back. We also learned that the guard’s gloves are moistened to prevent losing his grip on the rifle he carries. He always carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb, so each time he makes an about face, he switches the rifle to the outside shoulder. The guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. To be able to apply for guard duty at the Tomb, he must be between 5’10 and 6’2 tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30 inches. Guards must commit two years of their life to guarding the tomb, live in the barracks under the tomb and cannot drink alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way. After the two years the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb. There are only 400 presently worn. The guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin. If you have ever been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched the guards you would have heard the click their shoes make as they come to a stop at each end. Their shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and the cold from their feet. There is metal in the heel plates that extend to the top of the shoes and this is what makes the click. The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone or watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The guards must memorize who they are and where they are laid to rest in the cemetery. Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty. When you watch the changing of the guards, you will see the guard come out and inspect the other guard’s uniform and rifle before the change is made. The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.
There is a lot of history in and around Washington, DC. I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit there twice and for all three of my children to have experienced some of our nation’s history firsthand. We have toured the Capitol, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate, been to the top of the Washington Monument before it was damaged in an earthquake, seen the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington National Cathedral, Ford’s Theatre, the National Archives, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History just to name a few. I think that Arlington Cemetery had the greatest effect on me though. Just walking through the rows and rows of graves with their white tombstones and all the families and people represented there who have fought for our country, makes you proud to be an American. And to think that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded continuously since 1930 in all types of weather and storms and heat, is such a patriotic thing in my opinion.
So, hope you enjoyed a little bit of a history lesson for the day! If you are ever in Washington, DC, take the time to go to Arlington Cemetery, walk through the cemetery, visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch the changing of the guard. It really is a great experience!