Perfection, Preparation, and Discipline – The Old Guard “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”

In coaching, you’re constantly striving for perfection, quality preparation, and discipline. Take a look at the Old Guard (Honor Guard) safeguarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the process in which they go through on a daily basis. The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are completely dedicated to their duty of guarding the Tomb. The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact, there has been a Sentinel on duty in front of the Tomb every minute of every day since 1937… Regardless of the weather.


Elizabeth Collins, Army (

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. (April 26, 2010) — A lone Soldier stands on an open plaza, buffeted by bone-chilling wind. Twenty-one steps. Turn. Stand at attention for 21 seconds. Turn. Repeat. The sun drops. The temperature falls. The crowds depart. The Soldier continues his solitary walk.

The cemetery closes at 5 p.m., but closing brings little relief. The Soldier is only 12 hours into a 27-hour shift. He has spent every other hour marching in the bitter cold, and still has a long, frigid night of training on the plaza before he can go home at seven the next morning.

None of this fazes the Soldier, for he is a sentinel, a guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. He has one of the most sacred missions in the military, and he would walk through fire to honor and protect the fallen, nameless Soldiers under his watch.

But those who guard the tomb (members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, better known as “The Old Guard”) don’t want to be known as performers. They exist to “pay respects to the unknown Soldiers,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Gilliam, the 1st Relief commander at the tomb.

“To me, (the tomb) symbolizes the ultimate sacrifice,” he continued. “Every time I look out there, I look at three guys who gave up everything. They lost not just their lives, but their identities. And also, what their families are sacrificing too, not having the peace of mind, knowing that ‘My son is in Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery.’ They’re never going to know.”

Gilliam was compelled to become a tomb guard after attending the funerals of friends from the 3rd Infantry Division he had deployed with to Iraq. He saw the pain their families endured, and after visiting the tomb, realized that the guards take the place of the unknowns’ families. This was something he could do. He could honor and remember them in place of all the families who never knew what happened to their sons, husbands, fathers or brothers.

“You see families who are coming straight from Section 60 (where servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are interred) from a funeral, and they’ve got tears in their eyes. Veterans Day, Memorial Day-it really hits home, what we’re out here for. It’s definitely not for ourselves, (but) just to pay homage to those who came before us,” he explained.

“I get to represent my fallen comrades and my fellow Soldiers everywhere,” added Spc. Joseph Hull, one of the sentinels. “It means a lot to me. I’ll definitely carry it with me the rest of my career.”
“You do training during the day…manual, uniform, uniform classes. And then at night you get your hours of training in. The guards who are posted at night aren’t a ceremonial guard. They’re in ACUs. So they’re working on walking the mat, perfecting their lines, angles. We also do training as a whole. The whole squad will go out at night and train the guard changes and things like that,” said Gilliam, who as a relief commander actually conducts the training, and changes the guard rather than walking the mat.

It’s exhausting, the guards say, but they push through it. Hull had a newborn daughter during his training, so he had an especially hard time. In fact, he hopes to go to special-operations training, and expects his sleep-deprivation practice and discipline as a tomb guard will help him.

In addition to honoring the unknowns and all of the fallen, the sentinels represent the Army to the American public. They’re required to get two hair cuts in a nine-day work schedule and unlike most Soldiers, the sentinels are issued four dress uniforms and use an industrial-strength steam press. According to Hull, they spend up to six hours a day preparing uniforms, and four shining dress shoes, and that’s once a Soldier has it down to a science. It can take a guard in training twice as long.

“I’ve done over 800 walks and about 150 guard changes, so it’s become a habit,” said Spc. Kristopher Mancha, another guard. “But I try to keep that in the back of my mind, that just because it’s a habit, I’m never comfortable when I come outside. I’m constantly thinking and trying to do my best, never just going through the motions. But sometimes we do make mistakes, whether the crowd notices or not. We’re never perfect. We always try to strive for perfection, but deep down inside, we’re never perfect.”

The sentinels stand watch over the three unknown Soldiers 365 days a year, through pouring rain, blizzard-like snow and scorching heat. And they do it in all-wool dress uniforms. They can add cold weather gear or rain gear, but can’t change into lighter uniforms during Washington’s notoriously hot and humid summers.

“We try to take as many precautions to prepare for it as we can,” said Gilliam. “But part of it is, you just have to tough it out. Wintertime to me-I don’t like the cold at all-so the wintertime is a lot tougher than the summer. Summertime is over 100 degrees (in) 100-percent wool (uniforms). It can definitely get pretty hot. We do in the summertime, 30-minute shifts. It’s not overwhelming, but you have to prepare your body, stay hydrated. The physical aspect wears down on the Soldiers, especially guys who’ve been here over two or three summers.”

It does have an up side, however, said Mancha. Extreme-weather days are his favorite times guarding the tomb.

“It’s actually very motivating, believe it or not,” he said. “Some Soldiers like the heat. Some Soldiers like the cold. Snow-snow’s an awesome time to walk. There’s not a lot of crowd that comes around. That’s not what we focus on, but to be out here by yourself, (whether it’s) 100 degrees or negative-10, it gets very motivating. You’re dreading it at first, but when you get out here and you’re by yourself, it’s just you and the unknowns, and you’re doing something special, something nobody else wanted to do. Guarding the unknowns at 2 a.m. in 10-degree weather, it motivates you.

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