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Thoughts of Guards Center on War Dead

Charles Hillinger's America

November 11, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. — The guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns--rigid and straight with an M-14 rifle on his shoulder--walks 21 steps, the length of the black mat.

He turns and faces the tomb for 21 seconds. He turns again. He pauses 21 seconds. Then he takes 21 steps to the other end of the walkway. The rifle is always on the shoulder that's away from the tomb.

The procedure is repeated by each Tomb Guard for a half hour between March 1 to Oct. 1; for an hour this time of the year. Then the guard is relieved.

Thirty young men, members of the elite 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, the oldest active infantry unit in the Army, are guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, now more commonly known as the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Because a 21-gun salute is the highest honor that can be bestowed, the number of steps taken and the number of seconds paused in the ritual, is symbolic of the 21-gun salute.

Pfc. John Porter, 19, of Westminster has been guarding the large white marble tomb more than seven months.

Inside the sarcophagus is an unknown soldier from World War I, placed there 66 years ago when President Warren G. Harding led the nation in dedicating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Nov. 11, 1921. Buried immediately outside the tomb are unknowns from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, symbolic of all who had given their lives as the supreme sacrifice.

Sculpted on the east side of the 50-ton tomb facing the nation's Capitol are the figures representing peace, victory and valor. On the west side of the tomb is inscribed: "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God."

"It is, of course, a great honor to be a Tomb Guard, an experience I will remember with tremendous pride as long as I live," said Porter, between sentry duty in the Tomb Guard quarters in the basement of the Memorial Amphitheatre, immediately behind the tomb.

"This is always an extremely emotional experience. At least a dozen wreath-laying ceremonies are conducted at the tomb each day. When the ceremony occurs, a bugler from the U.S. Army Band plays taps. That especially gets to you.

"As a Tomb Guard, you think about the unknowns all the time. You wonder who they were, what they were like, where they grew up and lived, how they died in battle . . . ."

Porter said at night when the Tomb Guard "is all alone at the shrine to our fallen heroes, you do a lot of thinking as well. At 2 or 3 in the morning, on night patrol around the perimeter of the monument (unlike the rigid formal daytime patrol), your thoughts are often centered on those men whose remains you are guarding."

The 6-foot-1, 175-pound soldier--in the Army 18 months--said he misses California, misses the beach, misses his family and friends.

He lived in Westminster and was graduated from La Quinta High School in 1986. His father, John, is an estimator for a construction company. His mother, Marge, is a nurse. He has a sister, Lisa, 21, and a girlfriend, Vickie Rotondo, 18, of Fountain Valley.

The discipline, the physical training to be a Tomb Guard, are the toughest in the Army, said Staff Sgt. Wayne King, 27, in charge of the 10-man Tomb Guard unit. There are three teams, each of which guards the tomb for 24 hours, then has 48 hours off.

"The days when the men are not guarding the tomb, they are in training in the Catacombs, in the basement of the Memorial Amphitheatre. It is not easy duty for these young men--18 and 19 years old," King said.

"To be a Tomb Guard, one must be in the Old Guard, the 1,000-member 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment based at Fort Meyer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. The Old Guard is the President's own Honor Guard. They do ceremonials at the White House and at the Pentagon. They are guards of honor at state funerals and at funerals at Arlington.

"It is extremely difficult to get into the Old Guard. Younger members of the Old Guard may volunteer for duty as Tomb Guards. The Tomb Guards are the best of the best."

King, with nine years in the Army, is one of three sergeants in command of the Tomb Guards. He is 6-foot-2 soldier from Darlington, S.C., whose wife, Stacy, is pregnant with their first child. Having guarded the unknowns for two years, he is currently the senior Tomb Guard. The average tour of duty for Tomb Guards is 18 months.

Only males are permitted to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns as the men belong to a combat unit; women are not allowed in combat outfits. Guards must be at least 6 feet and be able to wear a 29-inch belt.

"Our uniforms have to be spotless, perfectly pressed. Our black leather shoes spit-polished shining. It is tiring walking guard duty so stiff and straight the way we do, especially toward the end of the day. Sometimes when we click our heels together we hurt our ankles. We stand so still our knees are locked in place," Porter said.

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