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Soldiers or Monks: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns

Arlington National Cemetery, one of my absolute favorite places to take tour groups to, almost invariably involves a trip to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we witness the always moving Changing of the Guard. Now, there is probably nowhere that a tour guide has to be on the ball as here, as this ceremony will make even the most jaded, lackluster, eyes glazed over school group fire questions at you like you went on the Meet the Press the day after you publicly talked about Tim Russert's mom.

Maybe what gets people is that there is a place in America, or anywhere for that matter, where even in our modern, cynical times, someone takes the effort and displays the self-discipline to willingly march back in forth in the hot sun to honor a person he doesn't know who died before his grandparents were born. It's so incongruent with the normal day to day existence of our daily lives, be they those of thirty five year old tour guides or fourteen year old school kids, that your mind seeks answers. Why? Why do they do it? And not just the textbook answer, what's really going on here?

To fill that void, as it so often does, the e-mail fairies created, in their infinite wisdom, a spam e-mail that's been making the rounds about who the Old Guard is, and what it takes to be a member of them. I'm not going to bother to debunk the whole thing, after all I'm just writing a blog post, not a master's thesis. As always, our good friends at are way ahead of us and I'll let them discuss the rest of the chain letter.

But let me share with you one tidbit of this e-mail, the bane of my existence. Believe it or not, this e-mail was forwarded on by a tour guide, of all people. This section quoted below pertains to the question I get asked all too often: "I heard that Tomb Guards aren't allowed to drink?" Enjoy:

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 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 {fighting} or the tomb in any way. 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.

Now, I could simply refute this by suggesting folks refer to section 8-40f(1) of Army Regulation 600-8-22 which lists the conditions for earning the coveted Tomb Identification Badge, second least awarded badge in the Army (bonus points for guessing the rarest). Note the complete lack of discussion of alcohol use:
When the Commander, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) becomes aware of information about a current or former member of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who was authorized permanent wear of the Tomb Identification Badge that suggests inappropriate conduct, including, but not limited to, acts of commission or omission for a member of that unit, or the intention to engage in inappropriate conduct, he will notify the Commander, E Company (Honor Guard), 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).
But I suppose someone could argue that "acts of commission" could include alcohol use. So I could refer one to the cumbersomely named Society of the Honor Guard - Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where they have been asked this question so many times they include it on their FAQ page. But hey, we all know you can't just trust the internet.

So let me just state unequivocally that I know for a fact that Tomb Guards drink. I've seen it with my own two eyes. They just sat there in a bar, engaging in conversation, without a care in the world, as if they were simply professionals enjoying a cold one after a hard day at work. No sense of shame whatsoever. I wonder if they knew that their acts flew in the face of countless chain e-mails, disappointing oh so many visitors. The horror!

Suffice it say, the tomb has been guarded round the clock for decades now, with soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) taking over the duties in 1948. If you want a good and accurate description of what it takes to become a Tomb Sentinel, I'd recommend Arlington's website. It's impressive enough what they do, we don't need to make stuff up.

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