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Culver grad Andrew Jay ’04 takes over key role at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tom Coyne

Jay becomes 41st sergeant of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

May 30, 2023

Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Jay ’04 has taken over as sergeant of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Jay took over as the 41st sergeant of the guard on May 30, overseeing daily operations of the unit that has stood watch over the hallowed grounds 24 hours a day since 1937.

“It’s something I could never imagine would happen. Being the 41st of anything is hard to wrap my mind around,” Jay said. “But next to deploying and going to combat for my country, this is among the highest honors that I could be doing in the military – guarding the most sacred place in the military.”

Jay said he was honored just to be considered for the position.

“It’s one of the greatest things, if not the greatest thing, that I’ll be completing in my Army career. I feel so lucky to do it,” he said.

The tomb, which began with one unknown service member from World War I and is now the grave of three unidentified service members from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. It serves as a symbolic grave for all the war dead whose remains have not been found or identified.

The white marble tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel, three figures representing peace, victory, and valor on the front panel and the back panel has the inscription: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."


 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

More than 4,700 unknown soldiers who died in battles dating to the Civil War are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, along with more than 400,000 other war veterans and their eligible dependents. The Army was given the task of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in 1926. It began 24-hour shifts on July 2, 1937. The site draws more than 3 million visitors each year.

Tomb guards are assigned to one of three rotations, with six to 10 guards in each. Duty rotations last 24 to 26 hours. The formal changing ceremony occurs every 30 minutes or hour, depending on the season. Each guard usually makes several walks each rotation, repeatedly pacing exactly 21 steps down back in recognition of a 21-gun salute.

The guards spend the rest of their on-duty time in quarters under the amphitheater next to the tomb, with bunks, a gym, lockers, a kitchen and a steam press to keep their dress uniforms looking sharp.

Jay joined the Army in 2008, saying he had thought about it while he was a Culver Military Academy student and decided to enlist while working around service members in Utah at Dugway Proving Ground, the Army’s premier science and test facility.

“I was working with service members and allied nations service members who would come to the proving ground and I’d hear their stories about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and it pushed me to do something more than make money and work,” he said. “It pushed me to want to serve and do what they were doing.”

Jay was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to West Africa.

Jay eventually joined the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the president. He has taken part in numerous high-profile events at the White House, such as state visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, other foreign dignitaries, and escorting the president to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to lay a wreath. Jay’s superiors saw how he conducted himself at those events and offered him the position of sergeant of the guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

“I believe they saw how I was able to train others and also the amount of high-visibility events I had done in the last 18 months,” he said.

Strangely enough, though, while Jay will be in charge of the unit, he is still working on earning his Tomb Guard Identification Badge, which would give him the title of “sentinel.” The silver badge is one of the Army’s rarest: Fewer than 700 have been awarded it since 1958.

To earn the badge, a soldier must memorize seven pages of cemetery history and facts and be able to write it out verbatim, including punctuation, by hand. The second phase involves memorizing 10 more pages of history and facts and being able to write it out by hand.

Jay is working on the second phase. The final phase is passing the badge test. To pass, a soldier must answer at least 95 of the 100 random questions correctly.

“I’m coming in learning everything young trainees are learning all while trying to perform all the duties of sergeant of the guard,” he said.

Jay said anyone who knew him while he was at Culver might be surprised to learn he’s now the sergeant of the guard.

“I was not a very good cadet. Once I joined the military, I realized how well Culver set me up to be successful in the military,” Jay said. “Even small, mundane things like marching, shining shoes, just basic general military knowledge set me ahead.”

He said when he first found out he was going to be the sergeant of the guard and he went to the tomb, they gave him his new shoes and they were joking he would have a hard time shining his shoes.

“Now granted, it’s a process. They sand their shoes first, then they start polishing,” Jay said. “After the first week, they checked my shoes and were shocked at the progress I had made. I told them, ‘I’m not saying this has anything to do with it, but decades ago I was shining shoes in high school.’ Small things like that really set me up unknowingly.”

He hopes to be in the position through the next inauguration.

Jay recalls visiting the site for the first time as a sixth grader. He’s still awed by the sight.

“It’s one of the most serene places. When you walk up the stairs and you’re overlooking the tomb with Washington, D.C., in the background, it’s silent. The only thing you can hear are the clicks of the tomb guards’ shoes. You watch the guard change and a feeling comes over you of knowing where you are at and what it represents,” he said. “Just watching the soldiers and the precision that they portray to the visitors and the nation on a daily basis, it’s mind-blowing.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Jay '04 took over as the 41st sergeant of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemtery.


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