News: Old Guard Sentinels Sacrifice for Those Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice
Story by Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
ARLINGTON, Va.. - A metered click, clack echoes through the white plaza. Hundreds of veterans, families and children stand around waiting. Only shoe steps and birds chirping violate the sign that reads 'Silence and Respect.'
A mechanical soldier dressed in impeccable blue adorned with shinning medals rigidly carries a rifle up and down the worn paths of the plaza. Every other brick shows no signs of wear.
The commander of the relief arrives for the changing of the guard at the sullen tomb hidden deep within Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. A relief commander is there every day for 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year.
People come year round to witness the precise changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But the tomb sentinels aren't there just for them.
"The guys down here pride ourselves on being the unknowns' family because their family can't come visit them here," said Staff Sgt. Kevin M Gilliam, the commander of first relief. "That was one of the bigger reasons that I wanted to come down here, to be with the family and pay my respects."
For more than 80 years the military has guarded and been the sole family for the unknown soldiers laid to rest in the tomb. Gilliam, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard,' has presided over more than 1,200 of these guard changes.
Staff Sgt. Ryan G. Spacht, who has played bugle with the Old Guard during many wreath laying ceremonies, understands the bond these soldiers have with the unknowns.
"These guys are doing a sacred duty," said Spacht, assigned to the U.S. Army Ceremonial Band 'Pershing's Own.' "They are showing honor to the unknowns by being here and not leaving them unattended."
Every day, families and children from across the globe come to pay their respects and watch the regimented tomb sentinels perform their duties.
"From the time that the sentinel begins his speech, the school kids visiting out there realize that something special is about to happen," continued Spacht, a native of Erie, Pa. "You see many of them stand a little taller, a little straighter and just a sense of wonder on their faces when one of the tomb guards walks right past them."
Many of the sentinels have a deeper understanding of what it means when families come to pay tribute to those buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
One of the busiest sections in recent years has been Section 60 where servicemembers who died during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are laid to rest.
"On my last deployment, I buried a couple friends here in Section 60 during mid-tour leave," explained Gilliam, a native of Richmond, Va.
"Then I got the chance to come back here and visit them again," he said. "I like to go visit my friends every once in a while, you know just hang out with them at nighttime, it's like family."
Though the sentinels understand their audience, Gilliam said his job isn't like a theater performance.
"We're not here for any kind of show or anything. The only reason that we put the preparation in and the time and the effort we put into our uniforms and what we do is because we want to be the best that we can for the unknown Soldiers," he explained. "It's a big sacrifice to give your life to your country, but it's an even bigger sacrifice to give your identity."
Though the changing of the guard only lasts about 10 minutes, the sentimental ceremony reverberates with friends and families forever.
"Your parents and your family don't have the assurance to know that 'OK, my son is in Section 60 and died during this on this and this day in this place.' It's just something for me that I want people to know that's why we're here."
Spc. Mathew D. Brisiel, a tomb sentinel from Houston, also assigned to HHC, explained how the importance of this mission strengthens the bond within the sentinel family that totals 580 badge holders since 1958.
"Our last work day, we had badge holder 383 come down with his family," said Brisiel. "And ya know, none of us had ever met this guy before and instantly when he walked in the door he goes, 'Oh, hey, how are you doing, Spc. Brisiel.' I mean, it is that lifelong commitment that we know, every single sentinel and even the new men in training, we know the amount of work … So to know that they've done it and that you're currently doing it, it's an instant bond."
Spacht said the bond he sees between sentinels isn't so much what they do, rather why and how they do it.
"The things that they do down here are not like rocket science, but it takes heart, it takes determination and a no quit attitude and sometimes they do it on no sleep at all," said Spacht. "It's incredible and they seem to get better at their job the longer they're down here … They are masters at their trade."
The sentinels train in three aspects: knowledge of the cemetery, uniform and outside appearance.
Because sentinels spend all their non-guarding time practicing or polishing up their skills, most have to explain to their families that this consumes their life, said Gilliam.
"Every time you go out the door, every step you take is a count. So that's pretty much all I'm doing. Every second is a count. You can pretty much go outside and do the change of guard blindfolded and do it right every single time, just 'cause it's ingrained so much into my mind," he said. "I know how many steps it is to the window, and when I step onto the plaza I'm taking eight steps, then 15 steps, then 21 steps … it's simple."
Despite its outward simplicity, each time a sentinel leaves the quarters underneath the tomb, they are checked and rechecked by at least two or three other Soldiers, explained Gilliam.
Every inch of his uniform is tailored to the individual sentinel from ripping out the inside lining of his dress coat to creating his own medals racks.
The details are part of the training and mechanical preparation each sentinel goes through to earn the tomb badge.
"We train to get dressed in three minutes. Everything we do down here has a training value," said Gilliam. "If anything happens to a guard out on the mat, we can have another one posted within five minutes."
The sentinels in training have to go through at least six months of drilling and walking the plaza before earning the coveted badge.
"That's six months of straight composure training," said Gilliam. "By the time we go outside as badge holders, it's not a thought to keep composure. Nothing's really going to break our composure."
The stern-faced guards may seem like robots, but he said that every sentinel still has anxiety from time-to-time.
"My first guard change ever when I was in training I had butterflies in my stomach," he said. "Usually what we do when a guy's in training, we have them do their walks right when the cemetery is about to open or when it's about to close because there's a smaller crowd there. And that was the plan. I came through in the summertime and I put the flag up at 5 p.m. and just looked outside and it was empty."
"Then as I'm getting dressed a tour bus pulls up and everybody gets out and it was packed. Ten times more packed than today. I was shaking, but I got through it and nothing major happened."
"It really is a roller coaster ride everyday you come to work," Brisiel said. "You could come in the morning and everything's going well then a few storm clouds roll in and your day is instantly ruined and everything starts going bad."
In February 2010, more than 24 inches of snow fell on the nation's Capitol, yet the sentinels didn't take a day off.
"This last blizzard, it was awesome," Brisiel continued. "We were out there all day and all night constantly shoveling and really having a good time with it."
He said, "No matter what kind of days we have, we all have respect for the unknowns and their sacrifices they've made."
Gilliam agreed, "Nothing easy to do is rewarding. When we're here, we work about 26, 27 hours at a time. We only work about 10 to 11 days a month, which equals out to about 270 hours a month."
The demanding job requires dedication and a lifetime of sacrifice, said Gilliam.
"After you pass training you get the tomb guard identification badge on the right breast pocket and it's the least awarded badge in the Army," he explained. "It's the only award that can be revoked even when you're out of the military. If I do something to discredit the tomb, then my badge can be revoked … I can be out of the military for 20 years and get a DUI then my badge can be revoked."
Gilliam laughed and said, "They say it's hard to earn, even harder to keep because you have to walk that straight and narrow path the rest of your life. It's a shame to lose it over a bad decision; you have to take the hard right over the easy wrong."
Every sentinel understands the lifelong commitment when volunteering to guard the unknown soldiers, but some, like Brisiel, find a more profound meaning to sacrificing their time.
"My love for this place just kept growing and growing and my want to come down here just got more and more," said Brisiel. "One of my trainers used to tell me that once you get doing the job, you will come to love the unknowns, and I always thought that was a little bit much to say that about your job."
Throughout his training, Brisiel realized that he began to identify with the tomb and empathize with the busloads of World War II veterans who came to visit.
"That makes it all worthwhile. Not only representing the unknown Soldiers, but representing every POW, MIA, any soldier that has given the ultimate sacrifice for not only themselves and their family but for every soldier still fighting and working today."
The sacrifice, preparation, and constant pressure the tomb sentinels feel every day of the year bonds them together as a family and further bonds them to the unknown soldiers they unwaveringly protect.
Each time a visitor witnesses the changing of the guard, they walk away with a newfound respect of one family watching another family protect a family that no one knows.
Perhaps at no other place in the world does the sound of click, clacking steps and birds chirping mean so much to so many.