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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

TOMB AT ARLINGTON
9/3/2011 6:56:52 AM

There are many people in America who wear their patriotism on their sleeves, usually just below where they display their religion. These are people you can always find at Memorial Day parades and at church on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Their patriotism and their Christianity are like barbed fish hooks: no matter how hard you wriggle and thrash about, they never let go of you.

They are always the first ones to jump to their feet and place their hands over their hearts whenever the flag passes by; the first to applaud whenever a uniform dashes through the airport. Like a good mortician, they’re usually the last ones to let you down at a funeral.

In the United States, we celebrate Armed Forces Day on the 3rd Saturday in May. Congress slates Memorial Day for the last weekend in May with the official day falling on the subsequent Monday. I guess we need back-to-back reminders that freedom is not free. Go figure.

Many years ago I got a call from Sam Cooper, then manager of the Rochester Monroe County International Airport and a decorated U.S. Airman, inviting me and a few cronies to accompany him to Washington, where he’d been asked to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

I asked, “How we supposed to get there?”

“The Air Force,” he told me, “will send a military aircraft for us and make sure we get the royal treatment.”

“You mean, like a tour of the White House,” I enthused, “and a private audience in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton?”

There was a brief silence at Barker’s end of the line, as he probably wondered why he’d asked me in the first place. “Ah — no, I don’t think so.”

On the appointed day, the Air Force sent a C-130 to pick up the half dozen of us, and I didn’t need a calculator to estimate we were outnumbered by military about 3 to 1. The plane was larger than the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship; a full bird colonel and a crew of sixteen flew it.

The massive aircraft took just over an hour to deliver us from Rochester to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC. A sergeant sat with me on a bench in the plane’s mammoth interior and before take-off he handed me a lump of rubber.

“Break off a hunk,” he advised, “and stick a wad in each ear. It’ll form a plug the shape of your ear duct, or the racket will bust a drum. The noise in here is unbearable. You can keep what you don’t use.”

He was right. The engines outside roared to life with the fury of repatriated demons, and it wasn’t long before I was traveling inside a ship the size of Delaware all the way to the Nation’s Capitol. Despite the noise, it was an experience I’ll never forget.

After half an hour, the sergeant tapped me on the shoulder. “Colonel Perez wants to see you up front,” he shouted.

I unfastened my webbed seat belt and cautiously followed the sergeant to the cockpit, a wild labyrinth of dials, gauges, wheels, levers and pedals that glared at me like some prehistoric monster.

“Wanna take the stick?” the colonel screamed, after we’d shaken hands.

Did I! I crawled into the co-pilot’s abandoned seat, and not aware that we were already on autopilot pretended to fly the gargantuan ship for at least ten minutes. Of course, no matter what I did, we continued to shoot through the clouds with nary a flutter.

We were met by a stretch limo that took us to our suites at the Arlington Sheraton, where my living room overlooked the cemetery as well as Robert E. Lee’s old mansion. We stopped en route at various shrines and monuments, including an emotional hour at the Vietnam War Memorial.

That night, after delightful cocktails, we were taken to the Washington Navy Yard Officer’s Club in Anacosta Park, and there, in the most elegant of settings, we enjoyed the finest dinner I had ever been served. We were attended by immaculately uniformed waiters (undergrads from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, I was sure,) and I have never been plied with more exotic shrimp, lobster, steaks, red wine and after-dinner drinks in a more exquisite setting since Barberstown Castle in Dublin.

The ceremony the next day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would have been anticlimactic had it not be for the sheer elegance of the Army elite who were assigned to orchestrate the affair. I asked a number of well dressed, government-appearing officials if they could tell me about these Army guards, but only one, John Rutterman from the Office of Parks and Recreation, seemed to know very much.

As I asked questions, I took notes. “Why do the guards always take the same number of steps during their march by the Tomb?”

“They always take 21 steps,” Rutterman explained. “It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.”

I asked, “How long does he hesitate after his ‘about face’ to begin his return walk — and why?”

“21 seconds — for the same reason as I already said. But he never makes an ‘about face.’ He pauses and turns to face the Tomb for precisely 21 seconds. Then he turns again and proceeds down the mat for another 21 steps.”

“I just noticed — why are his gloves wet?”

“Well, he moistens his gloves to prevent losing his grip on the rifle.”

“Why doesn’t carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time?”

Rutterman explained, “He always carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the Tomb. After his march across, he executes what you call an ‘about face’ and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.”

I wanted to know, “How often are the guards changed?”

“The guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.”

I watched the guards for a moment. “Amazing, isn’t it? They all look alike. What are the physical requirements?”

“Well, for a person to apply for guard duty at the Tomb, he must be between 5' 10' and 6' 2', and his waist size cannot exceed 30 inches. The tour of duty is about a year, but the average tenure is roughly nine months. The guards either live in a barracks under the amphitheater, or at Fort Mead, or privately at an off-site home. They cannot drink any alcohol on duty, and they’re not supposed to curse in public or disgrace the uniform or the Tomb in any way. Note they are all clean-shaven. And they must all be perfect gentlemen.”

“Which means,” I said wryly, “they can never run for government office.”

Rutterman looked at me as if he wished I’d go away.

“Anything else I should know?” I asked.

“Well, after his service each guard is given an ID badge that is worn on his jacket signifying he served as a guard of the Tomb. Currently, there are less than 400 presently worn.”

“What about their shoes? They look different?”

“Yes. Their shoes are specially made military brogues with very thick soles to keep heat and cold from bothering their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt. And notice their uniforms. There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on them anywhere. Guards have to get dressed for duty in front of a full-length mirror, and they inspect each other for the tiniest flaw.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, the first months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone nor watch TV. All off-duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in the Cemetery. A guard has to memorize who they are and where they are buried — and why they’re buried here.”

“Like who?”

“Well, like President Taft, the boxer Joe Lewis, Medal of Honor winners like Audie Murphy, the Kennedy brothers, of course . . . ”

“How long does it take a guard to get ready each day?”

“I guess about five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.”

As the ceremony was about to begin, I thanked Rutterman for his time. He said, “You should go up on the steps in front of the Tomb — it’s a better view from there. And no tourists will bother you.” He walked away, and I never saw him again. I did notice he was wearing an ID badge on the pocket of his jacket.

He was right about the view from the steps of the amphitheater. With the Tomb in front of me, the Washington Monument off in the distance, the expanse of Arlington between, and the occasional plane taking off from National miles away, the entire tableau was a pictorial preface to American history.

The ride home in the C-130 was uneventful, but I remember reading just the other day that when Hurricane Irene was approaching Washington last month, the Capitol shut down in anticipation of the storm. It was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned to guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend their assignment.

They respectfully declined the offer. “Thank you, but no way, sir!”

Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain and wind, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an “assignment,” it was the highest honor that can be afforded a living serviceperson. The Tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930, even on December 7, 1941 — and particularly on 9/11.


Copyright©2011 by Robert A. Mills

(SPECIAL NOTE: I received emails from many who did not receive the August 27 posting of GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY because of a malfunction brought on by Hurricane Irene. Please let me know if you would like that column re-sent: robtmills.comcast.net)


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