OK so picture a marble arena, one like the gladiators used to fight in. Then picture a big front door and even bigger, marble, majestic steps. That's where we sat. So now we're 'in between' the 'arena' and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Do you have a mental picture? We're looking towards the Tomb. Obvi.
This is the best pic I have of the Tomb...
So here's one from Wikipedia!
Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.
The WW1 Unknown is below the marble sarcophagus. Other Unknowns are beneath the white slabs on the ground. Korean War Unknown on the left, WW2 Unknown on the Right. A Vietnam War Unknown was under the middle slab until 1998, when he was identified. The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were identified using DNA testing. Department of Defense scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. Blassie's remains arrived home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri; he was re-interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Proud St. Louis-an here!
The crypt that once held the remains of the Vietnam Unknown has been replaced. The original inscription of "Vietnam" and the dates of the conflict has been changed to "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen." as a reminder of the commitment of the Armed Forces to fullest possible accounting of missing service members.
So, it is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Tomb Guard. Fewer than 20% of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. Crazy! Here's an interesting fact: The sentinels (the guards) do not wear rank insignia on their uniforms so that they do not outrank the Unknowns, whatever their rank may have been. Nice work, 'Merica. Soldiers serving in other roles, like Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commander, do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are "Posted". Every time the guard is changed, a Relief Commander accompanies the 'new' guard. If I ever get my video to upload, you'll see him. Tomb Guards currently carry M14 rifles, which are unloaded, but kept ready for use at all times, and always have a bayonet fixed.
OK, so the whole walking the mat thing... There is a meticulous ritual the guard follows when watching over the graves:
1. The guard walks 21 steps across the Tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary in America. His weapon is always on the shoulder opposite the Tomb (i.e., closest to us, sitting on the steps).
2. On the 21st step, the guard turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.
3. The guard then turns to face the other way across the Tomb and changes his weapon to the outside shoulder.
4. After 21 seconds, the first step is repeated.
This is repeated until the guard is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.
On the 21st step, and after the turn towards the Tomb, the guard "clicks his heels." I'm sorry, to any guard out there that reads this, I'm aware I just made you sound like Dorothy, and you're way cooler. But I don't know how else to explain it. Regardless, it's my favorite part! The guards have metal plates built into the soles and inner parts of their shoes to give the said signature click of the heel during maneuvers. The guards are also issued sunglasses that are formed to their faces due to the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater (Memorial Amphitheater! That's what I meant by "a marble arena, one like the gladiators used to fight in"). I'm sure the guards also wear sunglasses to help divert their attention away from hotties like me.
The guard change is very symbolic, but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The Relief Commander or Assistant Relief Commander, along with the oncoming Guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The Guard being relieved will say to the oncoming Guard, "Post and orders remain as directed." The oncoming Guard's response is always, "Orders acknowledged." That was my second favorite part, after the heel click.
During the the day in summer months from April 1 to September 30, the guard is changed every half hour. During the winter months, from October 1 to March 31, the guard is changed every hour. After the cemetery closes to the public, the guard is changed every two hours until the cemetery reopens. The ceremony can be witnessed by the public whenever Arlington National Cemetery is open.
I've probably said this before. But if you get the chance, go.