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Mr. Evans is away in Maryland this week, so I figured I’d take a stab at this in his absence.
But technically, he’s here; he’s the one who shared this story with me. So, here goes.
Mr. Bill said this was a recent question on a round of Final Jeopardy.
“It’s the number of steps each sentinel takes during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns.”
“All three of em’ (contestants) missed it,” Evans said.
If you don’t know the answer, don’t feel bad. At the time, I didn’t know.
But, now, I do.
So, just how many steps does a sentinel at the Tombs of the Unknowns take during his walk and why?
He takes 21 steps, alluding to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
Now, that we all missed that one, let’s see if we can answer these questions about those who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns.
How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why?
He hesitates 21 seconds for the same reason as above.
Why are his gloves always wet?
The soldier’s gloves are moistened to keep him from losing the grip on the rifle.
Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time and if not, why?
He always carries the rifle on the shoulder that’s farthest away from the tomb.
After his march across the path, he executes an about face and shifts the rifle to the outside shoulder.
How often are the sentinels changed?
Sentinels are changed every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day on 365 days a year. It’s been that way since 1930.
What are the physical traits of a sentinel?
For a soldier to apply for guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns, he must be between 5-foot, 10-inches tall and 6-foot, 2-inches tall. By the way, his waist size cannot exceed 30 inches.
Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.
Those lucky enough to be chosen as sentinels (less than 20 percent who apply) must commit two years of their lives to watch over the monument. During those two years, they live in a barracks under the tomb.
They must also adhere to a strict code of conduct. For the rest of their lives, they are forbidden from drinking alcohol (on or off duty) or swearing in public. Disgracing the uniform they wear or the tomb they are sworn to guard is a no-no.
After two years, the sentinel is awarded a wreath pin that’s worn on their lapel signifying they served as a guard of the tomb.
By the way, there are only about 400 soldiers who have these pins right now. If a soldier decides he isn’t willing to obey the lifelong code of conduct, he gives up his wreath pin.
His shoes are specially made with thick soles to keep protect his feet from the heat and cold. Those metal heel plates extend to the tops of his shoes to make that loud click everyone hears it when he comes to a halt.
There is no wiggle room allowed in his dress code.
Every sentinel spends five hours a day getting ready for guard duty in a uniform that must be wrinkle-free with no folds or traces of lint.
Then, he dresses in front of a full-length mirror in a uniform with no rank insignia on it so that he doesn’t outrank the Unknowns, whatever their rank may have been. While the regimental commander and relief commander of the U.S. Third Infantry who guard the tomb have uniforms with rank insignia, they never wear them while on guard duty.
During the first six months of duty, a sentinel can’t talk to anyone or watch TV. Chances are, if he’s in a background camera shot during Monday’s annual presidential wreath-laying ceremony, he’ll see it about Halloween.
A sentinel’s off-duty time is a breeze. He spends time studying the lives of the 175 notable people buried in Arlington National Cemetery and must memorize who they are and where they are interred. That includes President Taft, boxer Joe Louis and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy.
Guarding that tomb is a job these sentinels take so seriously that they will even disobey orders to do it.
In 2003, as Hurricane Isabelle with its 120-mph winds was barreling down on Washington, D.C., the Associated Press reported that the regimental commander sent word for the nighttime sentries to “secure your post and seek shelter to ensure your personal safety.”
They promptly refused and marched in the pelting rain all night.
One of them told the AP, “I’ve got buddies getting shot at in Iraq who would kick my butt if word got out to them that we let them down. I have no intention of spending my Army career known as the idiot who couldn’t stand a little light breeze and shirked his duty.”
That’s what I call dedication and the kind of service we honor on Memorial Day.
My prayer is that you pause to thank God for all of those men and women in uniform who serve or have served. Stop by Memorial Park and look at the graves with American Flags in front of them.
And when you do, remember those three unknown soldiers in that tomb at Arlington. They paid the ultimate price for freedom. Remember the men who care enough to guard over them, too.