Never having had the privilege of serving in this country's Armed Forces, it's difficult for me to express the sentiments that I have when giving this day its due consideration or even whether I'm worthy of doing so. I would therefore instead simply like share with you a bit of information about the symbol of ultimate sacrifice for Veterans in this country. So instead of boring you with my normal attempts at either significance or relevance, I will once more share with you the simple facts of this National Shrine, dedicated to those veterans who have fallen in battle, the Tomb of the Unknowns.
- The tomb contains the unidentified remains of a soldier who served in World War I, World War II, and Korea. (Though a soldier killed in Viet Nam was originally interred here, that body was later removed and identified through DNA testing. It was subsequently decided to leave the Viet Nam crypt empty.)
- The Tomb was dedicated in 1932, and has been guarded continuously since 1937.
- Those guarding the Tomb are members of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), and those "walking the mat" wear no rank insignia on their uniforms while on duty so as to preclude the possibility that they might outrank one of those lying in the Tomb.
- The Guards take 21 steps, in recognition of the 21 gun salute; the highest honor given anyone in the military or any foreign dignitary. Upon completion of those steps, the guards hesitate 21 seconds in memory of that same honor, turns 90 degrees and hesitates again for 21 seconds, then completes another 90 degree turn and hesitates yet one more time before resuming their march.
- The Guards march with moistened gloves to prevent the gun from slipping from their grasp while on duty.
- Guards are changed every 30 minutes; 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
- Tomb guards normally cut their hair the day before their duty, take five to six hours to prepare their uniform, and shave twice a day while serving their watch.
- The guards always carry the rifle on the shoulder furthest from the tomb, shifting it as they reverse the course of their march. This move places the sentinel between the tomb and any threat.
- The Guards of the Tomb, an honor currently carried by very few soldiers (there were just over 500 people in 2008), is awarded only after careful examination and is recognized by the award of a wreath pin. They subsequently live under very strict guidelines of personal conduct for the rest of their lives.
- In order to achieve this honor, for the first six months of duty, guards spend most of their free time learning of the most notable people buried in Arlington in preparation for their exam. With their rigorous training, hours of marching, and rifle drill, they have little time for anything else.
- In 2003 as Hurricane Isabella approached, and again in 2011 as Hurricane Irene struck Washington; while Congress abandoned their post in the city in anticipation of the dangers of these storms, these guards stood their duty. Soaked to the skin, they continued to march their rounds in the pelting rain and in the case of Irene, in winds of 85 miles per hour. They had been offered the opportunity to suspend this assignment in 2003, but refused; stating that such duty was not simply an assignment, but was the highest honor afforded to a serving member of the military.