Do the guards have to live like military monks for the rest of their lives?

Stories about the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are rife across the internet and especially in widely forwarded email mailings. Many of them are myths, and some of them are hilarious.

We were honored to have First Sergeant Dennis McMahon of the Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as our guest on the podcast to discuss the history of the tomb, to tell us the duties of tomb guards, and to buzzkill these myths

The movement to honor the remains of unidentifiable soldiers was started during World War I by a British army chaplain in 1916. Their Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was dedicated in Westminster Abbey in 1920 and other countries followed suit.

In 1921, US Congress approved a tomb of an unidentified WWI soldier in Washington. It was dedicated on November 11th of that year. It was a relatively simple and modest tomb in the beginning. A marble superstructure was placed over the tomb in 1931. The panels were decorated with lists of battles and images of peace, victory, and valor. On the western panel was inscribed, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known to God.”

Between 1956 and 1958 unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War interred, and an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War interred in 1984. The Vietnam remains were later identified through DNA testing and were returned to the family.

Since its founding, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become one of the most revered and visited sites in Washington DC. It symbolizes national honor, sacrifice, and pride.

As you can imagine, the military chooses the soldiers who guard the tomb very carefully. They must represent all the things the tomb symbolizes. Maybe that’s why so many myths have sprung up around the Tomb guards.

An email message about the Tomb guards has been going around for years. It gives the impression that guards at the Tomb are almost superhuman in their behavior, especially when it comes to their levels of commitment and personal moral behavior. Here are some of the things in the email that are complete myths:

  • Tomb Guards must commit 2 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 cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform  or the tomb in any way (for instance, by fighting).
  • After 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.
  • The first six months of duty a guard cannot 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.

For the truth, listen to our episode, or go to Tomb Guards’ website and to their Facebook page

The Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier provides the best and most direct information about the Selection Process, the Training, and the Lifestyle of Tomb Guards. It also shows gives a lot of detail that proves these myths are ridiculous. The following text comes from their website:


The Selection Process:

Tomb Guards are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard.” The Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military, in service to the U.S. since 1784. After a valorous performance in the Mexican War, the Old Guard received its unique name from General Winfield Scott during a victory parade in Mexico City in 1847. The Old Guard has a long history of service to the U.S., from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War.

Since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official “U.S. Honor Guard” unit and “Escort to the President”, as well as maintaining its certification as an infantry unit for combat roles. In that capacity, Old Guard soldiers are responsible for conducting military ceremonies at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), Pentagon, national memorials and elsewhere in the nation’s capitol. In addition, these soldiers defend civil authorities in Washington D.C. and support overseas contingency missions. The Old Guard recruits soldiers based on certain intangible traits, and with requirements for height and weight, physical fitness, aptitude scores, and conduct. These soldiers are considered to be the most suitable to represent the U.S. at home and abroad, and the Tomb Guards are considered the best of this elite unit.

The Old Guard is comprised of three battalions, with two of them residing at Ft. Myer. The battalions are organized in several companies to fulfill their mission, and the following specialty platoons:

and the most recognized platoon:

  • The Tomb

The Tomb is comprised of three Tomb squads “reliefs,” 1st, 2nd and 3rd Reliefs, each with 5-8 soldiers. The reliefs are organized based on height, so that the Tomb Guards are similar in size during the Changing of the Guard. Although the Sergeant of the Guard can organize reliefs based operational needs.

The mission of the Tomb platoon is:

  • Responsible for maintaining the highest standards and traditions of the United States Army and this Nation while keeping a constant vigil at this National Shrine, and;
  • Whose special duty is to prevent any desecration or disrespect directed toward the Tomb.

To become a Tomb Guard, an Old Guard soldier must volunteer by applying for appointment to the Tomb through the Sergeant of the Guard. To be considered for an appointment, the soldier must be highly motivated and disciplined, and possess a strong military bearing and soldierly appearance.

If appointed, the soldier is assigned to the Tomb for an initial two week training period. The period focuses on basic Changing of the Guard sequences, uniform preparation, and memorization of a basic “knowledge” packet about the Tomb and ANC. At the conclusion of the two weeks, the soldiers are tested in these areas. If they pass, they are assigned to one of three reliefs as a trainee for an intense training period. If they fail, they are assigned back to their company.


Upon reporting to a relief, the trainee is assigned a Tomb Guard trainer. The trainer is a mentor who is expected to mold the trainee into a Tomb Guard. The trainer informs the trainee of what is expected of them, including following strict rules, training guidelines, and the need for complete dedication and commitment to the Tomb. Then the trainer teaches, monitors, inspects, and test the trainee during the training cycle.

The training cycle is intense, consisting of a series of five exhaustive tests over six to twelve months. The tests focus on outside performance, uniform preparation, and knowledge. Outside performance tests on weapons manual, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, and orders. Uniform preparation tests on Tomb uniform standards for the Army Dress Blues, Shoes “Spits,” glasses, and brass and metals. Knowledge tests on 35 pages of information on the history of the Tomb and ANC, for which the trainee must recite verbatim – including punctuation.

The tests are progressive, demanding quantifiable improvement and demonstrated performance. If the trainee completes the training cycle and passes the tests, they will be able to flawlessly conduct seven different types of ceremonies, to meet the highest standards of uniform preparation, and recite 35 pages of information without error. If the trainee fails any test, they are assigned back to their company.

The successful trainee is awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (Badge), and will be referred to thereafter as a Tomb Guard – and affectionately known by their peers as “Badgeholder.” The Badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the U.S. military, trailing only the Astronaut Badge. The Badge is the only military badge that can be revoked for any action that brings disrespect to the Tomb during the lifetime of the Tomb Guard.

Lifestyle and Duties:

The relief is lead by a Commander of the Relief (Staff Sergeant) who is responsible for the operation, welfare and morale of the relief. Ideally, the relief will consist of two teams, each consisting of an Assistant Relief Commander (Sergeant) and four additional Tomb Guards for a total of nine soldiers. The relief is lead and supported by Tomb Headquarters, consisting of the Platoon Leader (Lieutenant), Sergeant of the Guard (Sergeant First Class), Assistant Sergeant of the Guard (Staff Sergeant), the primary trainer and a driver.

The Platoon Leader oversees the administrative and operational functions of the Tomb. In addition, they serve in various ceremonial functions on the company level. The Sergeant of the Guard oversees the same day-to-day functions, mentors and develops junior Non-Commissioned Officers, and conducts presidential wreath laying ceremonies.

The three reliefs are on duty utilizing 24 hour rotational shifts. The Tomb Guards’ day begins at 5:00 A.M. with arrival at the Tomb Quarters (The Tomb Quarters is located below the Memorial Amphitheater, and is where the Tomb Guards live and work during their duty time) for duty. The Tomb Guards will inspect the quarters, prepare their uniforms, review orders, and receive their duty assignments.

At 6:30 A.M., the Tomb Guards inspect the trainee’s readiness and uniforms. If a trainee meets relevant standards, the Tomb Guard may allow them to walk the morning “bolo” at 7:00 A.M. The term “bolo” stands for “be on the look out,” and is first and last guard change and walk prior to public ANC hours. The Tomb Guard may allow a trainee to walk the mat in full ceremonial uniform as practice. The evening bolo will be the final change and walk of the day.

During the hours of the day ANC is open to the public, the Tomb Guards will perform several Changing of the Guard and wreath laying ceremonies, and Walking the Mat. During summer hours, the Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every half-hour, and during winter hours every hour. Although all walks are sacrosanct, the most coveted walk for a Tomb Guard is the noon “Noon Moon” walk. The “Noon Moon” walk is coveted because it is the most visited, and therefore highest profile, Changing of the Guard and Walk of the day. Tomb Guards also conduct retreat and retire the colors in accordance with the military tradition.

During the same time, the trainees perform “mirror time.” “Mirror-time” is part of Tomb Guard training when the trainee practices weapons manual and movements in front of several ceiling to floor mirrors in the quarters, conduct uniform preparation, study knowledge, check-in wreaths, and alert the Tomb Guards of the next Changing of the Guard by performing a “quarter till.” The “quarter till” alerts the Tomb Guards of the next Changing of the Guard, and is also a time to present Tomb Guards with special knowledge “high-speed” or certain motivation for the privilege of Walking the Mat. “Walking the Mat” refers to the Tomb Guard ceremonially guarding the Unknowns by walking back and forth on a rubber mat while maintaining 21 second intervals.

The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. So, after the evening “bolo,” non-ceremonial changes and walks in battle dress uniforms are performed until the next morning’s “bolo.” During this time, the Commander of the Relief usually conducts entire relief training. With repetition and meticulous attention to detail the relief works together on the various sequences emphasizing uniformity and cohesion. These night hours are the time when the trainees hone their skills. The mechanics of guard duty come naturally to very few. Trainers spend countless hours providing feedback and teaching the nuances of guard duty.


Finally, Buzzkillers, please go to the Society’s website about their National Salute project:

Here’s some more information:

The Society of the Honor Guard Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS) Centennial Committee is proud to announce the implementation of one of the many projects currently under development as we approach the 100th Anniversary of the burial of an Unknown American Soldier who fought and died in World War I, and is buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TUS) in Arlington National Cemetery.

The National Salute is a means to show our deep respect for our Unknown Soldiers buried in the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. On the the 11th Hour, of the 11th Day, of the 11th Month in 2021 Americans across the United States and foreign lands, will pause to recognize those who have sacrificed and those who will sacrifice in the future in the defense of America’s Freedom and Democracy.

The Centennial of the TUS will be that National Moment when all of America pauses to remember and to unite with those who have secured our most cherished beliefs and our National identity with their blood and treasure. We will renew our acquaintance with President Washington’s deepest desire for National unity. We will remind ourselves of President Lincoln’s belief that we are all “…created equal….” and thus connected to every patriot grave. Then, with the courage of Congressman Hamilton Fish, who spearheaded the drive for the TUS shortly after WWI, we may bring all of America together, if only for a Moment.

This commemoration provides to all of us a unique opportunity to celebrate America’s unshakeable commitment to the dignity of humanity as was so defiantly set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It is an opportunity to express individually and collectively, our sense of service and national unity; and our thanks for what this country has done for us. This powerful concept and belief are witnessed every day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where, as Congressman Fish intended, there is a place serving as a focal point, where all of America can come together spiritually and physically.

So, how can you help? Talk to your organization and suggest that they toll their bells for a “21 Count.” This would be followed by a “Great Silence” for 2 minutes, just as it was done during the 1921 ceremony. If your organization doesn’t have bells, you can still participate by asking your church leaders to pause at 1100 for 21 seconds, in commemoration of the sacrifices made by so many.

The SHGTUS Centennial Committee invites you to reach out into your community to help us implement Phase 1 of the National Salute this year. For more information on how you can help project please contact the Public Affairs Director at