The Pentagon, home to the United States Department of Defense, is one of the most recognized buildings in the world. It is one of the most secure facilities in the world.
Its also a great place to visit.
Every year, approximately 100,000 people are taken on a tour through the labyrinth of hallways and corridors. A Joint Armed Forces team of Tour Guides from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard lead the public on a mile-and-a-half, hour-long tour through highlights of military history.
Types of people that take the tours range from school groups and fraternal organizations to ministers and secretaries of Defense from all over the world.
Spc (P) Daryl D. Willard a former Pentagon Tour Guide that performed over 700 tours, also performed the duties of a Tomb Sentinel.
“Training-wise, Pentagon tour probably required as much, if not more intensity as the Tomb,” said Willard.
The Tour Guide position was a natural fit for Willard, who worked as a live TV and Infomercial pitchman before joining the military.
“Volume is a big performance measure as a Tour Guide,” said Willard. “You have to be able to project continuously.”
Willard took a wide range of people on tours; from stars of the TV show Duck Dynasty to the Prime Minister of Australia.
Tour Guides must be members of their service’s ceremonial guard. Ceremonial guards have certain customs and courtesies that Tour Guides must adhere to, so other units cannot be represented.
That means the seven representatives for the Army come from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).
“We would be liaisons between the DOD (Department of Defense), the Army,” said Sgt. Kyle M. Poole, the Non-commissioned officer in charge of the Army Tour Guides. “We are a face to the force.”
Tour Guides are first chosen from volunteers that respond to an open call on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. The initial audition includes memorizing a short script and an interview, said Poole.
Successful soldiers have an extensive knowledge of the Army, a solid physical training test score and professional appearance, said Poole. Those selected then move onto a three-week training cycle that requires the memorization of 33 pages of information that must be recalled verbatim, said Poole.
Tour Guides must also master reciting the script while navigating the escalators and multiple floors in one of the world’s largest office buildings. Tour Guides must walk backwards, using lighting fixtures and fire extinguishers as guideposts, said Poole.
Willard said he did fall once, over a misplaced bench.
The Pentagon has three times as much floor space as the Empire State Building.
Willard said the Pentagon is like a small city, with everything from doctor’s offices, dentists, a post office, a bank, gift shops, pharmacy, flower shops, 35 different food vendors, a 125 thousand square foot gym and a department of motor vehicles.
When being evaluated, new Tour Guides are asked to give a tour to three senior tour guides. The senior tour guide will do their best to disrupt the trainee by acting like “the most belligerent tourist you can possibly have” said Willard.
“Initially, you are expected to do everything on route, on script,” said Willard. “And once you qualify with your pre-evaluation and final evaluation, then you are allowed to do the public tours.”
Tours also have no set route. Due to security considerations, construction, or time restraints tours will be detoured through any number of varied formulations, said Poole.
“We can basically go anywhere,” said Poole. “There are so many different sections, there’s no set thing.”
Poole said the 33 pages of information is also a mere starting point. Tour Guides are expected to come up with a minimum two of their own facts about each of the sections (Korean War, Eisenhower, MacArthur, etc.) and personalize their tours, said Poole.
“You have to submit the two facts and then we thoroughly review them,” said Poole. “You never want to give false information.”
After performing hundreds of tours, Tour Guides challenge themselves to keep growing and personalizing their knowledge.
Tour number 1,000 has to be just as engaging as tour number one was,” said Willard. “To all of them, it is tour number one.”
Willard said he would research the scale model planes in the Air Force section and be able to come up with interesting facts.
“I always had one trivia question in there too that I would throw at people: which one is Air Force One?” said Willard. “None of them are Air Force One, since none of them has the President on them currently at the time.”
One place tours always make a stop is the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, said Poole.
“Nobody honestly cares about how many tiles there are on the ceiling,” said Willard. “What they care about is fact The Pentagon remained still open even when it was hit by an airplane.”
“Its peoples actions that make the United States what it is,” said Willard. “Not just a building.”
After training, Tour Guides are on probation for two to four months. After completing this period Tour Guides can wear the Office of the Secretary of Defense Badge.
The average Tour Guide serves no more than two years, said Poole.
After four months, Tour Guides have an opportunity to advance to VIP Tours.
Spc. Christopher Molitoris has been a Tour Guide for a year and a half, and conducted an estimated 1,500 combined Public and VIP Tours.
Guests of the Chairman or Joint Chiefs of Staff are typically who get VIP Tours, said Molitoris.
There are many areas of the Pentagon not included in the public tour route that are accessible on a VIP Tour, said Molitoris.
VIP Tours are a separate entity that Tour Guides must pass another test to be certified to conduct.
Tour Guides are given a room somewhere within the Pentagon, an amount of time to conduct a VIP tour, and an end point.
A VIP tour must start and end within three minutes of the allotted time.
Content of a VIP is left to the discretion of the Tour Guide, and has some new challenges.
Willard said Tour Guides can’t repeat any corridors and must think of things to talk about in blank corridors. Unlike the Public Tour route, VIP Tours may not have things to point out to show them along the way.
“You have to know your way around really well,” said Willard. “There are 17 and a half miles of corridors.”
The biggest difference between a Public and Pentagon Tour guide is a Public Tour Guide has to talk about what they have memorized, a VIP tour guide has to talk about what they know, said Willard.
The duty becomes a very personal mission for the men and women that perform it.
“I loved it,” said Willard. “I loved giving these people an impression of the United States Military that perhaps they didn’t have before.”
Pentagon Tour Guides ultimately become the personification of the Department of Defense.
“You are really representing yourself,” said Molitoris. “You might be the only representation of your branch to another country, or maybe a child they see you as the Army, you are the symbolism of the Army.”