Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Old Guard

Tomb of the Unknown SoldierImage by K. Sawyer via Flickr

This is a letter to one of my sisters about the Old Guard unit from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade stationed at Fort Meyer in Arlington, Virginia. The Old Guard is charged and privileged with the ceremonial duties at Arlington National Cemetery. They also provide security at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The letter speaks for its self.


The Old Guard is indeed steeped in tradition and honor. As a child and young teenager, there were times when I almost lived in Arlington Cemetery.

There are some inaccuracies in this email. There is no barracks under the Tomb, only a ready room. There is no lifetime Prohibition against drinking and swearing. Behavior that reflects poorly on the unit is punished.

I have stood and watched these men walk their post at all hours of the day and night. I have seen them march in the pouring rain and bitter cold. It is amazing to see them continue to march in heavy snowfall or during an ice storm.

I have also partied with some of them and am struck, by the fact that they are ordinary men doing an extraordinary thing. It brings honor to them and to those they guard who are the real hero's.

I often used to wonder if the relatives of any of the unknown had ever stood in front of the Tomb absorbing the pageantry and ethos of the place, missing their loved ones and wondering where they were laid to rest. Of course, they have.

Their final resting place is not in the tomb or in some foreign field. It is in the hearts and minds of those they loved and died for. It is in the hearts and minds of anyone whoever had the privilege of standing in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns and reflecting on the sacrifice of those interred there and throughout the grounds.

There is another Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington that most people never see. It looks remarkably like the one that is guarded around the clock. A little southwest of the Mansion's front door, it was the first grave in the cemetery placed there to prevent the Lee family from re-inhabiting the house after the Civil War.

If memory serves and it does, there are just over two thousand men interred in this vault a little smaller then the one well known. They were recovered from the battles of Bull Run after the war. I was always amazed that in this grave were both Union and Confederate troops. Likely, some were related even if on different sides of the conflict.

They all thought God was on their side and died for what were no doubt, deeply held beliefs. Or maybe some were just swept up in the events of the day and died just trying to survive without really understanding the issues that brought them to war. Unwilling hero's led to untimely deaths by the failure of their leaders to resolve their differences short of a war they could have avoided.

I do not get war. Living so close to Arlington and spending so much time there really played a huge part in my feelings about a lot of things. It was a wonderful place to watch people. The tourists going through Arlington House or Lee's Mansion were always somber and respectful. The mourners in their grief were soulful, sad and despondent. The soldier's at their duty and even the grounds people digging and filling graves and beautifying the grounds added to the majesty and mystery of a place that epitomizes the futility of war.

To them a nine-year-old boy on a bike was invisible. To me it was a place of incredible pageantry and a kaleidoscope of human interaction and emotion. It was a place to escape to and spend a soft summer day or night reading or just observing nature, human and natural.

It is a place where any leader contemplating war as a solution should spend enough time to soak up some understanding of the consequences. It a place of not only peace and tranquility but shattered lives and dreams. It is a place of orphans and widows, of futility and despair. It is a place of courage and grace, of heroics and hero's. It is a place of questions and if one listens carefully, of answers in the heart.

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