Monday, May 25, 2009

A Brother Abroad: The Memorial Day Edition

"Here rests, in honored glory, an American Soldier known but to God."

Realizing I could go really crazy with posts about this day that at once marks the unofficial onset of summer while also calling us to remember those who have allowed our summers to be so free and easy, I'll keep it simple.

Yesterday, I alluded to Arlington as the single most stirring place to visit in memory of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The lines of white crosses, the ubiquitous sound of Taps, and the stoic expressions on the faces of veterans whose visit is much more personal than casual tourist, all make this one of the most humbling places in the American conscious.

For me at least, the most powerful aspect of this hallowed place is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from the World War I and II, the Korean Conflicts, and (up until 1998) the Vietnam War. Each unknown soldier was presented with the Medal of Honor at internment.

The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by specially trained members of the 3rd US Infantry (the Old Guard), which is considered to be among the highest of honors despite the great demands of such a service.

Some interesting facts about the guardship: ( I know this is long, but if you haven't had a chance to consider the significance of the day....)

1) The guard takes 21 steps across the tomb, signifying the 21 gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

2) When the guard reaches the 21st step, he does not execute an about face (though some descriptions say this). He stops on the 21st step, then turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds. Then he turns to face back down the mat, changes his weapon to the outside shoulder, counts 21 , then steps off for another 21 step walk down the mat. He faces the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until he is relieved at the Guard Change.

3) The guard's gloves are wet to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.

4) The Guard is changed every thirty minutes during the summer (April 1 to Sept 30)
and every hour during the winter (Oct 1 to Mar 31). During the hours the cemetery is closed,
the guard is changed every 2 hours.

5) Appropriately, the men who march 21 steps south, turn and march 21 steps north, and then repeat the process minute-by-minute for up to an hour at a time day or night, are the very best of the Army's best.

6) Whether under a blazing sun, unsheltered from driving rains, or in freezing snow, they perform their duty with great precision and military bearing.

7) Each of them is a volunteer from the 3rd Infantry, eligible to apply for duty as a sentinel ONLY after they have already been ceremonially qualified in The Old Guard.
Each soldier among them is physically fit for the demanding responsibility and between 5'10" and 6'4" tall with a proportionate weight and build.

8) Acceptance in The Old Guard's Company E does not assure a volunteer that he will become one of the fewer than 550 soldiers in the last 45 years to earn the distinctive Tomb Guard Badge.

9) Before any soldier is allowed "a walk", he must memorize seven pages of history on Arlington National Cemetery and then recite it verbatim. If a soldier finishes this phase and is granted "a walk", he enters a new phase of training known as "new-soldier training". In addition to extensive training in the manual of arms, the guard change ceremony, and the intricacies of military ritual, the new-soldier is required to memorize additional information on Arlington, including the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans, among the notables are:
President Taft, Joe E. Lewis (the boxer) and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, of Hollywood fame (and the most decorated soldier of WWII).

10) There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror. An average guard takes eight hours to prepare his uniform (which is solid wool--regardless of the time of year) for the next day's work. In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also complete physical training, Tomb Guard training, cut their hair before the next work day, and shave twice per day.

11) It was erroneously reported that during Hurricane Isabel, the Sentinels were ordered to abandon their posts for shelter and that they refused. No such order was ever given; the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment. They respectfully declined the offer, "No way, Sir!" Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment, it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a serviceperson. All proper precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the Sentinels while accomplishing their mission. Risk assessments are constantly conducted by the Chain of Command during changing conditions to ensure that soldier welfare is maintained during mission accomplishment.

This is Day 119.

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