Veteran recalls duty with The Old Guard
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Soldiers and officers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, have a solemn duty to perform in Arlington National Cemetery. It’s not simply a job because it becomes an obsession that soldiers dedicate long portions of their lives to so that the general public receives a lasting impression of their loved one. Days, months, and years are given in preparation so that the missions are conducted as close to perfect as humanly possible. I gave five and a half years of my life to the rehearsals, preparation, and execution of such missions to our fallen heroes in Arlington national Cemetery as a soldier and non-commissioned officer in The Old Guard.
The first few steps in this process begin well away from the cemetery. Uniforms of The Old Guard are to be maintained in pristine condition at all times, which requires many long hot hours of intense and meticulous upkeep. All measurements are made with a device referred to as a micrometer, which is a small six-inch ruler, with sixteenths and thirty-seconds on opposing sides. The measurements are to be so precise as to not be outside of a “two-tic” tolerance (the “two-tics” being two-sixteenths or one-eighth of an inch.) Everything on our uniforms is measured this way from the gold band around the ceremonial cap, to the amount of steel plate remaining on the bottoms of our shoes.
Once the uniform prep is completed, all individuals and teams responsible for the carrying out of the specific funeral/mission are divided into their respective groups to begin training. Casket teams rehearse folding the flag and carrying the remains from Caisson to graveside as six or eight man teams. Firing parties practice three volleys of seven rifles firing at precisely the same time. Escort elements march and march and march until all soldiers are stepping and doing rifle manual at the exact same time and in the exact same manner throughout the element. The last remaining group is the Color Guard and the officers. The Color Guard is made up of the most senior members of the company when it comes to funerals and other ceremonies to be conducted. The Color Guard trains and rehearses with the officers of the company to insure that every aspect of the mission is understood by the leadership and to maintain the status quo on timing between each of the elements that will be at the funeral.
Lastly, once all uniforms have been deemed wearable and all practices have yielded the most results allowable, all teams and officers gather for a final exercise. Each member of each team knows his part inside and out and is unwilling to falter in his role. We all know how important each one of these missions is, and we dare not let complacency seep into our minds. The mission is first talked through by each individual Team Leader going step by step through the entire process from the moment boots are on the ground until the last soldier is back on the bus. Once the talk through is finished, everyone gets into position and the mock ceremony begins. Each movement and command is followed precisely as it would be for a real funeral; from the coming to attention as the remains first arrive, to the final command to dismiss once out of eyesight from the next of kin. We all take great pride in our work and we leave nothing to chance. Every possible outcome is followed up and rehearsed, leaving contingents in place for all possible interruptions.
Each funeral is sacred to the men of the Old Guard that conduct it, and it is even more so to the family of the lost loved one who witnesses it. These missions are the final glimpse of a military lifestyle that the next of kin will potentially ever witness of their loved one. It is our hope and goal to present the family with the utmost professionalism and respect while striving for perfection in our conduct of the ceremony.