The Truth About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Sign pointing to Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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A message widely circulating since March 2004 purports to describe the lifelong duties of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Viral Message Analysis

This text contains a careless mix of fact and fiction. While some of the stated facts are accurate, others — such as the claim that the guards are forbidden to swear or drink alcohol, on duty or off, for the rest of their lives — are patently absurd. See the FAQ page of the Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery for true facts about the Tomb Guards.

The author of the apocryphal email is unknown.

Viral Message Sample

Here's sample email text contributed by Cathy F. on March 31, 2004:


1. How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns and why? 21 steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

2. How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why? 21 seconds for the same reason as answer number 1.

3. Why are his gloves wet? His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.

4. Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not? He carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb. After his march across the path, he executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

5. How often are the guards changed? Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

6. What are the physical traits of the guard limited to? For a person 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".

Other requirements of the Guard:

They 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 cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform [fighting] or the tomb in any way.

After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on his lapel signifying he served as guard of the tomb. There are only 400 presently worn. The guard must obey these rules for the rest of his live 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.

For 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. Among the notables are: President Taft, Joe E. Lewis [the boxer] and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, [the most decorated soldier of WWII] of Hollywood fame. Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.