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Memorial Day – 2010
By Lance Van Auken
May 31, 2010
About a million years ago, I was in the U.S. Army Reserve.
My unit, the 810th Military Police Company, was in Tampa, Florida. I eventually transferred to a Public Affairs Detachment, also in Tampa, because it allowed me to use my writing skills and, hopefully, provided a more valuable service to the Army.
Being an MP was fun, at times. Going to the firing range and helping add security to the annual air show at nearby MacDill Air Force Base were the fun parts. However, much of our “training” back then consisted of spot-painting the rust spots that would develop on the unit’s Jeeps.
In the two years I spent with the 810th, there was a middle-aged sergeant who had once been a part of the Third U.S. Infantry, better known as “The Old Guard.” We’ll call him Sergeant Thompson.
As part of The Old Guard’s Company E, Sergeant Thompson was one of the sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, D.C., where 300,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, two Presidents, and some civilians are buried. Usually, each Memorial Day, the President of the United States places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Now, as Army Reserve units go, I’d like to think the 810th was better than average. Some time after I left the unit, it was called to active duty for Operation Desert Storm, and served with distinction.
But anyone familiar with Reserve units will admit that that many of us citizen-soldiers get a little soft over time, since they only drill for one weekend a month. Immediately upon joining the 810th, just after four months of Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training, my boots gleamed so much you could see your reflection in the toes.
About a year later, I will admit, my boots were still somewhat shiny but the reflection in them was not so clear.
Not so in Sergeant Thompson’s boots. Month after month, his appearance never changed. His uniform was always sharp and crisp, and his boots were like black mirrors. He must have spent hours on them each month, only to come to our Reserve Center for two days.
In many ways, Sergeant Thompson never left The Old Guard. The sense of duty that was ingrained into him stayed with him for years after the last time he walked those 21 steps in front of, perhaps, the most revered spot in our country.
There have been four burials at that spot at Arlington, with all four Unknowns symbolically receiving our nation’s highest award for valor, The Medal of Honor.
A marble sarcophagus rises above the body of a World War I soldier as the centerpiece. On the side facing Washington the East are the Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. On the sides facing North and South are six wreaths, representing the six major battles of World War I – the “War to end all wars.”
On the side facing West are the words:
“HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD”
A few feet to the west of the sarcophagus are the crypts of Unknown Soldiers from World War II, and the Korean War. The fourth crypt, originally containing the body of a serviceman killed in Vietnam, is now empty. That’s because the remains were identified as those of U.S. Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Blassie and disinterred for burial elsewhere.
We’ve become so good at identifying remains that is is likely there will never be another soldier interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns, for Sergeant Thompson, and for all the Old Guard soldiers before him and since, is a daunting and solemn responsibility. Only after relentless training to the point of perfection are Old Guard members allowed to actually be sentinels.
The sentinels guard the Tomb 24 hours every day to perfection. They guard it in hurricane force winds and blinding snowstorms. There are no holidays for The Old Guard’s Company E.
For anyone who has never seen the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, it is a must-see when visiting Washington. It is, at once, elaborate and simple.
Here is how it is described on the Arlington National Cemetery website (http://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/ceremonies/sentinelsotu.html):
An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. Soon the new sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony.
The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor. Then the relief commander orders the relieved sentinel, “Pass on your orders.” The current sentinel commands, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The newly posted sentinel replies, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position on the black mat. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.
The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed — the 21-gun salute.
Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the Tomb Guard Quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study Cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the Changing of the Guard. The guards also train on their days off.
The sentinels actually do GUARD the Tomb of the Unknowns. It means they are willing to lay down their lives for an ideal, not for a king, president, or dictator. But then, every member of our military faces the same possibility.
I still have my boots. They have not been polished in more than 15 years. The leather is dry and cracked.
I have a feeling, if Sergeant Thompson is still around, he can still see his reflection in his boots.
Our son is now back on U.S. soil after his third combat tour. He’s an Army Ranger, so shining boots is not his forte. Each time he’s returned, we’ve gone to Arlington National Cemetery on our next trip to D.C., and we’ve watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It never gets old for me.
We also walk to Section 60 at the cemetery, the place at Arlington at which many service members who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan have been buried. I say a prayer each time, thanking them for their sacrifice. I ask God to help their families to find peace.
It all feels monumentally inadequate and I weep for my family’s good fortune.
We will go there again soon.