By Derek Turner

Your eyes are drawn first to the footprints.

Every step taken today by those who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns has been taken millions of times before. You know this because of the footprints.

The daily footfalls on the mat laid out in front of the Tomb have left spots visibly worn across the 63-foot black rubber surface. Any visitor to the Tomb—and there are more than 3 million visitors to Arlington National Cemetery each year—can tell where the heel should strike and where the toe will push off as the soldier moves 21 steps from one end to the other.

It goes beyond the mat.

How many steps does it take to leave a footprint in stone? That’s what’s happened here.

The guards have left an indelible mark on the stone plaza that lies between the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. Each changing of the guard is played out on ruddy brown imprints.

The Tomb has been patrolled every minute of every day since July 2, 1937. In 1948, The Old Guard took up the job.

The soldiers who guard it fall into two distinct categories: Those who have earned the coveted Tomb Guard identification badge and those who desperately want it.

The badge is sterling silver, about two inches in diameter and depicts the east side of the Tomb, which shows three standing figures symbolizing victory, valor and peace. Beneath are the words “Honor Guard.” All of it is encircled by an inverted wreath, which represents mourning. There are six such wreaths on the Tomb.

Photo credit Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill

Soldiers carry out a wreath laying ceremony at Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on July 8 in honor of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Guam and the battle for the Northern Marianas.

The humidity in Virginia oxidizes and tarnishes the badge, so badge holders polish it ceaselessly to maintain the luster.

That’s not unusual. Tomb Sentinels are constantly polishing medals, but they take extra care with this one because it’s rare. To earn it is to become a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in the United States military. Since it was first issued in 1958, fewer than 700 soldiers have pinned on the coveted badge.

The only badge awarded less frequently is the one given to astronauts.

The New Man in Training

Before he walked in the footprints on the plaza, Staff Sergeant Max G. Gideon Jr. left his mark in the dirt during two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.

He’d been a soldier for six years before coming to The Old Guard, and another year passed before he came to the Tomb. He arrived last fall and passed an intense two-week training cycle, which earned him access to an even longer, more intense period of training. This one will last the better part of a year but will, if all goes well, end with him wearing the coveted badge. It won’t be easy. The attrition rate is 90 percent.

During the initial two weeks, prospective Tomb Guards must memorize seven pages of “knowledge” related to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns. It starts with easy things like the Army general orders, special orders and the Tomb Guard mission. It moves on to the Sentinel’s Creed and the Vigil, then becomes more specialized and focused. No matter how proficient a prospective guard might be in the physical aspects of the job, to even be considered for a walk—a session guarding the Tomb—the soldier must recite all seven pages verbatim.

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After successfully navigating those first two weeks, he’s really just getting started. A Tomb Guard in training must know the location of hundreds of notable grave sites. The graves of Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy are on the list, as are those of Iwo Jima flag-raisers Rene Gagnon, Michael Strank and Ira Hayes. There are scores of generals and admirals, as well as former Tomb Sentinels buried at Arlington. More knowledge to memorize, more tests to pass.

Gideon expects to pin on his badge later this year. His situation is more complex than most because as he learns, he also must lead.

He commands one of the platoon’s three reliefs. Each relief includes about eight soldiers, grouped together based on height. To be considered, a soldier must stand between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall. The first relief is made up of the tallest soldiers. Gideon’s relief, the third, is the shortest.

Gideon is in charge of every move his guards make and every thread on their uniforms throughout their 24-hour shifts at the Tomb.

“I’m signed for millions of dollars worth of equipment,” he said. “I generally oversee everything that occurs and I have the final say on all the decisions.”

Photo credit Army photo by Sgt. Cody W. Torkelson

Sgt. Nathan Johnston, Sentinel, 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), places a rose at each of the four crypts of the Unknowns during his last walk ceremony on October 18th, 2016, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.

In the bowels of the amphitheater are the Tomb Guards’ quarters. When not walking the plaza, the members of the on-duty relief spend their time training, prepping uniforms or tending to other duties. There’s a gym, a locker room, a kitchen and space for soldiers to press their uniforms or to study. It’s not luxurious, but it’s enough to get them through the day.

Within the quarters exists a hierarchy that pays little mind to Gideon’s status as relief commander. Ultimately, he is a Tomb Guard in training. He speaks only when necessary. He is forbidden to smile or laugh, except on rare occasions and only in designated, out-of-the-way areas.

“When we’re downstairs in quarters, as a new man, you have a set of rules that you have to follow strictly,” Gideon said. “There’s things we can’t acknowledge, such as the badge holders. They have a table that they sit at. We don’t acknowledge that. We don’t acknowledge badge holder conversations. We don’t acknowledge the TV. Anything that can be construed as a distraction, we don’t acknowledge it, for the sake of building up that ceremonial composure that we use outside.”

During each changing of the guard, Gideon emerges from the quarters and makes his way to the center of the plaza, where he salutes the Tomb, turns to the gathered visitors and asks them to remain silent and standing.

By then the relieving guard has arrived on the south end of the plaza and Gideon marches over for inspection. He grasps the guard’s weapon, an M14 tipped with a bayonet, and checks every inch of it, looking for smudges or rust or the slightest fraying in the sling. He hands the weapon back and begins inspecting the soldier. Each tilt of Gideon’s head is deliberate and reveals the sequence. Gideon inspects the soldier from head to toe, then walks behind him and repeats the process.

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Satisfied, he marches the relieving guard to the center of the plaza where orders are passed on and the guard is officially changed. The entire process takes more than eight minutes. Each instant demands precision.

Down in quarters, badge holders watch on closed-circuit television. Every guard change is graded. If Gideon has been less than perfect, he’ll hear about it.

“As a newer man here, the more challenging times would be dealing with the larger crowds because it adds that fear that you’re going to mess something up,” Gideon said. “I’m not as proficient as some of the other guys who have been here quite a while. But even them, they say they go out there sometimes and have that nervous feeling inside of them. It’s hard to shake.”

The Badge Holder

When Sergeant Erik McGuire began to consider trying out for the Tomb Guard platoon, he went online and dialed up videos of guard changes. He wanted to get a sense of what it was all about.

Photo credit Army photo by Staff Sgt. Megan Garcia

Miranda McGuire pins the Tomb Guard Identification Badge on her husband, Sergeant Erik McGuire, on August 30, 2012.

“Every guard change that I viewed, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is amazing.’”

Now, McGuire spots all the maddening flaws that were invisible to him at the start. He’s been guarding the Tomb since February 2012 and earned his badge on August 30. If a guard’s posture is off, he sees it. If a rifle is held at an imprecise angle, he knows it. If a soldier’s tone of voice is not sufficiently authoritative, he can tell.

The stated goal is perfection. It is, of course, unattainable, but tradition demands its pursuit, and the badge holders enforce it. They hold each guard to an exacting standard. It’s why they spend large chunks of their lives stressing over the finest details.

McGuire figures it takes him more than two hours to prepare his uniform—pressing the blouse and pants, hemming and mending, shining the medals. Polishing the shoes—black leather with metal inserts to create that crisp clicking sound—takes just as long.

“That’s if you’re good,” McGuire said. “If you’re a new man in training, it’s pretty tough. When I first started out, I was having to spend five, six hours on my shoes on my in-between day to get ready for the next work day, and they still weren’t standard because I hadn’t developed that feel for it.”

On the mat, he still counts every time. Though the footprints guide the way, he counts all 21 steps in his head, then the 21 seconds between movements at either end of the mat. He knows if he slips up there will be a badge holder to remind him.

During the walks—which last 60 minutes in the fall and winter, 30 minutes in spring and summer—McGuire said he has no concept of how much time has passed or how much remains before relief will arrive. But it goes quickly, he said, because his focus is so great.

Once the walk is over, he’ll occasionally pause and reflect. He thinks back to the last of his two Afghanistan deployments. As it neared an end, McGuire was planning to re-enlist. He was given his choice of nearly a dozen duty stations. He sought advice from leaders in his chain of command. They told him it was a no-brainer.

They were right, he said. This is an assignment that stays with you forever.

“Guys return who were Tomb Guards in the ’50s and ’60s,” McGuire said. “They’re as proud now as they were when they were here. Or even more proud.”

They take the badge, but leave the footprints.

–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.