Tag Archives: Arlington National Cemetery

4th female sentinel proud to revere tomb’s unknown Soldiers

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

Sgt. Ruth Hanks has many memories to choose from when explaining why she cherishes her job as a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Perhaps it was when an honor flight of U.S. military veterans, either World War II- or Korean War-era, stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the tomb in the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. Hanks wondered if one of the veterans paying tribute that day had fought alongside one of the unknown Soldiers.

“Veterans see that Soldier will never be forgotten,” she said. “It’s a big thing.”

Or, maybe it was the first time she heard, “Oh, [the Soldier is] a female. I didn’t know they could do that,” while on duty as a sentinel at the tomb. Though sentinels are focused on performing their tasks, they do hear a few of the public’s comments.

Hanks knows that when she ultimately leaves the prestigious post she will have amassed a wealth of pride, experience and knowledge to share with other Soldiers about her momentous opportunity.

“I am always trying to bring it back to the unknowns so that everybody remembers what we are here for,” Hanks said. “I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability.”

Demanding, yet humbling

Hanks, a military police officer, comes from a family of military service members, and acknowledges the responsibility she shoulders as the fourth female sentinel. For the most part, though, she sees herself as just another one of the guys.

“It’s a role for other females to look up to, but at the same time, from my point of view I’m just a sergeant in the United States Army who wants to do a job,” Hanks told her college newspaper.

It was after being deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 that she began researching the Old Guard, its specialty platoons and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“I also happened to run into an old Tomb Guard Identification Badge holder and talked to him a little bit,” Hanks said. “That kind of set in stone what I wanted to try to do during my next assignment.”

“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Since 1948, Soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” have served in the distinguished duty as sentinels, guarding the tomb in any kind of weather, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The Guard is changed every 30 minutes from April 1 to Sep. 30 and every hour from Oct. 1 to March 31. During the hours the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every 2 hours.

The impeccably attired tomb guard wears the Army dress blue uniform, which is reminiscent of the style worn by Soldiers in the late 1800s. Sentinels shine their shoes, medals and belt buckles for hours to meet the high standards of uniform preparation.

During the ceremony, the relief commander appears on the plaza of the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater and announces the Changing of the Guard. The new sentinel leaves the tomb quarters, which is beneath the amphitheater, and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle ─ the signal to begin the ceremony.

The relief commander walks out to the tomb, salutes and faces the spectators, asking them to stand and remain silent during the ceremony. The relief commander conducts an inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the tomb. All three salute the unknown Soldiers. (The tomb contains the remains of one each for World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The previously unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was identified as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie. After DNA identification, Blassie’s remains were moved to Jefferson National Cemetery, Missouri.)

The relief commander orders the retiring sentinel to pass on his or her orders, who replies, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The new sentinel says, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

The tomb guard marches 21 steps down the mat behind the tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any possible threat. The number 21 was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed posthumously ─ the 21-gun salute, according to arlingtoncemetery.mil.

Lessons learned

Sentinels are considered to be the best of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. Each Soldier must be in superb physical condition and have an unblemished military record. An interview and a two-week trial determine the Soldier’s capability to train as a tomb guard. Once chosen, he or she will undergo many hours of intensive training and testing, which focuses on overall performance, uniform preparation and knowledge of the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery.

Hanks credits leadership training and the maturity that comes as a noncommissioned officer for preparing her to take proper responsibility as a tomb guard, whether she is executing her duties in front of veterans or family members.

Sgt. Kevin E. Calderon, another tomb guard, shares Hanks’ sentiments.

“Coming down here to the tomb, I’ve developed myself so much to the point I know exactly what I’m looking for when I see a Soldier,” Calderon told Army publications. “Every day here is training. You become a trainer. When new candidates arrive, the goal isn’t to make them as good as you. You want them to be better. It’s the epitome lifestyle of an NCO.”

A great sense of time management and a supportive family has also helped her cope, she said.

“My family loves it,” she said. “When they came out here for my Tomb Guard Identification Badge ceremony, they got to see me out there, and they really enjoyed it. It’s just overwhelming pride that you see in your family. I don’t do it for that, but seeing that is just phenomenal. It’s one of those things; you just want to make your parents proud, so it was pretty neat.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that women were permitted to volunteer to become sentinels when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard, according to the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns. The MP branch is a combat support unit.

In 1996, Sgt. Heather L. Johnsen became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. Since then, two additional female Sentinels who are also NCOs were awarded the badge ─ Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson in 1997, and Staff Sgt. Tonya D. Bell in 1998.

Women must meet the same requirements as male Soldiers to be eligible as tomb guards. The only difference is that women have a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 8 inches, which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard. Male sentinels must be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches tall.

“I do not get treated any differently,” Hanks said. “The crowd might have more of a response because there is a female there, but when it comes to work and training, it’s absolutely the same.”

Hanks foresees that her praise of the tomb, guards and the military ritual will endure long after she has moved on from her duty, urging prospective visitors to Washington, D.C., to stop by the Tomb of the Unknowns for the Changing of the Guard. “Check this out, and I’ll tell you a little story about them,” she would say.

“I would be passing on history,” Hanks said. “The motto of the tomb guard is ‘Soldiers never die until they are forgotten. Tomb guards never forget.’ That’s what we have to keep doing.”

 

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me, never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance.
My standard will remain
Through the years of diligence
And the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well-meaning crowds by day,
alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this Soldier in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

To join ‘The Old Guard’

Prospective noncommissioned officers and enlisted Soldiers interested in joining “The Old Guard” may call The Old Guard Recruiting Office at commercial 703-696-3007 or email Old Guard Recruiting at usarmy.jbmhh.mdw.mbx.tog-recruiting@mail.mil

This Month in NCO History: July 20, 1950 — A heroic stand at the Battle of Taejon

From the moment Sgt. George Dalton Libby arrived on the Korean Peninsula with the rest of the 24th Infantry Division on June 30, 1950, the odds were stacked against them. But Libby’s efforts through extreme adversity would earn him the nation’s highest military honor.

The Taro Division was the first American force to reach the Republic of Korea in response to the invasion by the North Korean People’s Army five days earlier. The 24th ID was charged with slowing the advance of the North Korean assault until more U.S. forces could arrive. But that was no easy task.

The division was grossly understrength in the aftermath of post-World War II cutbacks. Its speedy arrival and limited training time in Korea meant the 24th would be, in effect, a strategic bump in the road, meant to hinder the enemy’s advance while 140,000 United Nations troops formed what eventually became the Pusan Perimeter to the south. This translated to setback after setback in the early days of fighting.

Beginning July 14, the 24th ID began a valiant stand against three attacking North Korean divisions during the Battle of Taejon. The North Koreans successfully pushed the Americans back from the Kum River east of the city before beginning an intense urban assault.

On July 20, the remaining elements of the division were attempting to withdraw from the city that once housed its headquarters. Libby was among them as part of C Company, 3rd Engineer Combat Battalion. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he was aboard a truck bound for the town of Taegu when it encountered a North Korean roadblock. Enemy forces ambushed the truck, disabling it. The subsequent barrage of bullets killed or wounded all Soldiers aboard except for Libby, who exited the vehicle and scrambled to a nearby ditch to take cover. As bullets whizzed around him, Libby returned fire, allowing wounded Soldiers to leave the truck and take cover. Twice during the firefight, he exposed himself to enemy fire by running across the road to administer aid to wounded Soldiers and pull them to safety.

Soon after, Libby heard an M-5 Half-track approaching. He flagged down the driver and began helping the wounded aboard. As the vehicle drove off, the enemy directed its fire at the driver. That’s when Libby made the decision that thrust him into history. Realizing that no one aboard would be able to operate the vehicle if the driver was killed, Libby used his own body to shield him. Libby received several bullet wounds in his arm and torso as the massive tractor rumbled away from the scene, his citation states. The vehicle made frequent stops with Libby firing his M2 carbine at enemy forces they encountered as he helped more wounded Soldiers aboard.

Eventually, the tractor came upon another roadblock and was peppered with bullets. Libby, who had ignored requests to receive first aid, once again held himself in front of the driver to shield him. Libby was struck by bullets repeatedly but refused to withdraw as the driver careened through the roadblock and headed toward safety. Libby held his position until he lost consciousness and died. He was 30 years old. His citation states, “Sgt. Libby’s sustained, heroic actions enabled his comrades to reach friendly lines. His dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself and uphold the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.”

Libby’s body was returned to the United States. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Aug. 2, 1951.

Libby was born Dec. 4, 1919, in Bridgton, Maine. He served during World War II before his time in Korea. Since his death several buildings and monuments have been named in his honor. Perhaps the most notable is the George D. Libby Bridge, which spans the length of the Imjin River and links North and South Korea.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

This Month in NCO History: June 19, 1945 — A one-man charge at Ozato, Okinawa

Technical Sgt. John William Meagher was atop a moving tank when he spied a Japanese soldier with a bomb clutched in his hands dashing toward the vehicle’s tread. Meagher didn’t hesitate. He barked the location of one last target to the tank’s gunner before leaping off the iron behemoth to charge at the incoming threat — and into history as a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Meagher was part of E Company, 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, on June 19, 1945, when it ran into Japanese resistance near Ozato, Okinawa. The Statue of Liberty Division had arrived in Okinawa in March to relieve the 96th Infantry Division. By June, it had moved to the southern end of the island near Ozato from its previous position in Shuri. Here, the 77th ID was charged with covering the right flank of the XXIV Corps to seal off cave positions the Japanese used as safe havens.

On that fateful June day, Meagher’s unit was advancing against enemy resistance. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he climbed atop an assault tank to direct its fire against two fortified enemy targets. He did so despite “bullets splattering about him.” Amid the hail of gunfire, Meagher noticed the lone Japanese soldier making a run at the tank. He jumped off the tank and ran toward the enemy with his bayonet extended in front of him.

While Meagher halted the attacker’s charge, he also detonated the explosive device the attacker was carrying and was knocked unconscious by the blast. Meagher came to moments later. Finding his rifle destroyed and enemy fire still whizzing by him, he returned to his tank to grab a weapon. Meagher secured a machine gun and “began a furious one-man assault on the enemy,” his citation states.

He fired from the hip as he moved through a barrage of bullets that ripped through his clothing. Meagher reached the nearest pillbox and killed six enemy soldiers. He sprinted to the next pillbox through more gunfire only to find his weapon out of ammunition. But Meagher was unfazed. According to his citation, “he grasped his empty gun by the barrel and in a violent onslaught killed the crew.”

His single-handed effort silenced heavy enemy resistance and enabled his platoon to take its objective and continue the advance. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor a year later on June 26, 1946.

Meagher was born Dec. 5, 1917, in Jersey City, New Jersey. On March 21, 1942, he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II. The 77th ID was activated four days before his draft date. Meagher trained extensively with the division in the United States before heading for war in the Pacific. They fought in campaigns on Guam and Leyte before joining other forces in the Battle of Okinawa. Two days after Meagher’s gallant one-man charge, the last remnants of Japanese resistance fell.

Meagher left the Army while still a technical sergeant. He died April 14, 1996, at age 78. Meagher was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

Old Guard honors the fallen

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

More than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Whether they are maintaining a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns or firing three rifle volleys as part of the Firing Party, 3rd Infantry Regiment Soldiers conduct ceremonies and memorial affairs to honor America’s fallen at the cemetery.

Up to 30 funerals take place daily at the nation’s most revered cemetery and the Army does about half of those, said Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista, platoon sergeant for the Firing Party of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).

By the end of a two- or three-year tour in the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall at Arlington County, Virginia, a Soldier will have performed 100 or more funerals for service members, according to the Old Guard.

Military funerals with standard honors include a Casket Platoon, the Firing Party and a bugler, as well as a caisson for service members who have reached the top NCO grade of E-9. In addition to standard honors, full honors military funerals include an Escort Platoon and a military band.

Soldiers in the Old Guard must pass the demanding Regimental Orientation Program, a three-week course designed to teach new arrivals the subtle distinctions of the uniforms of the Old Guard, rifle movements and marching that is unique to the elite precision unit.

Maintaining ceremonial composure is critical to the unit’s Soldiers, especially in front of the families who serve as inspiration.

“We are that last Soldier some of these families see, whether it be here, rendering final honors for service members or at the Tomb of the Unknowns, [so we have to be on point],” Batista said.

Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal

 

NCOs embrace Old Guard’s sense of tradition and duty

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

Honor. Privilege. Prestige.

For the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), presiding over America’s fallen is a duty that the 1,600 Soldiers who volunteer for the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment are dedicated to carrying out with the utmost precision.

Service in the elite unit, which has served since 1784 and is headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall at Arlington County, Virginia, means participating in several high profile, yet solemn, duties in the nation’s capital. Since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official Army Honor Guard and escort to the president.

Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has served as the Casket Platoon squad leader and the Firing Party platoon sergeant for the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). “Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said.
Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has served as the Casket Platoon squad leader and the Firing Party platoon sergeant for the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). “Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said. (Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Noncommissioned officers are valued by the Old Guard for their combat experience and proficiency in soldiering skills. NCOs of the Old Guard lead Soldiers through a diverse set of missions, from ceremonies at the White House to memorial affairs at Arlington National Cemetery. Their professional appearance and conduct sets the standard for the Soldiers in their unit.

NCOs must also meet physical standards, which call for physically fit males to be at least 5 feet 10 inches tall and fit females at least 5 feet 8 inches.

Upon arrival, the demanding Regimental Orientation Program awaits each new member. The three-week course is designed to teach arrivals the Old Guard uniform nuances, rifle movements and marching unique to the unit.

Final honors

Perhaps the most well-known of duties that Old Guard Soldiers provide is the rendering of final military honors for fallen comrades. For the past three years, Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has been on hand during Army funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, whether as the Casket Platoon squad leader or most recently as the platoon sergeant for the Firing Party.

Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) set up for a Twilight Tattoo performance in June at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington County, Virginia. Twilight Tattoo is a military pageant featuring the Soldiers of the Old Guard.
Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) set up for a Twilight Tattoo performance in June at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington County, Virginia. Twilight Tattoo is a military pageant featuring the Soldiers of the Old Guard.

Up to 30 funerals take place daily at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Army does about half of those, Batista said.

“Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said. “We are the last Soldier some of these families see, whether it be here, rendering final honors for service members or at the Tomb of the Unknowns, [so we have to be on point]. We want to offer the families comfort and for them to know that we did our jobs in honoring and rendering services to our fallen service member in the way they are supposed to be honored.”

Aside from supervising Soldiers’ training and offering mentorship, Batista makes sure necessary personnel are available and ready for funeral services. Maintaining ceremonial composure may not be easy when you’re wearing a wool uniform in 90-degree heat with humidity.

“Honestly you get used to it, and you just learn to deal with it,” Batista said. “That’s why as an NCO you make sure your guys are hydrated, but in the summertime it can get pretty bad.”

Three teams are part of the Firing Party platoon ─ a full honors team and two standard honors teams. Military funerals with standard honors include a Casket Platoon, the Firing Party and a bugler, as well as a caisson for service members who have reached the top NCO grade of E-9. In addition to standard honors, full honors military funerals include an Escort Platoon and a military band.

Training is done consistently to ensure all members are in sync when the Firing Party commander orders them to fire their weapons. The intent is for it to sound as if one shot is being fired at the same time, Batista said.

“It’s seven guys firing, but it should only sound as one shot,” he said. “Three volleys for a total of 21 rounds are fired. You will notice that pretty much perfection is our standard or pretty close to that.”

 ‘Come humble’

Coming from operational assignments to the Old Guard has been a learning experience for Batista. He said he still does the same training, but it’s now training for another side of the Army.

Members of the Firing Party full honors team, 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), await the order to fire their weapons during a military funeral with full honors in June at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The Firing Party trains consistently to make sure that all members are in sync when they fire their weapons.
Members of the Firing Party full honors team, 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), await the order to fire their weapons during a military funeral with full honors in June at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The Firing Party trains consistently to make sure that all members are in sync when they fire their weapons.

“For the most part, you still provide that mentorship to the junior enlisted and help them to grow as Soldiers and NCOs,” Batista said.

Though his service in the Old Guard has provided him with a great sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, he has some advice for NCOs looking to join the unit.

“You have to come humble because this is one of the few units ─ because of our makeup ─ that the junior enlisted know the job sometimes better than the NCOs when you first come in,” he said. “So the mentorship, in a sense, not only goes from the top to bottom but bottom to top. Come humble and come ready to learn ─ from your first days at the unit, learning how to march all over again, to learning how to manipulate the sword.”

Eye-opening experience

For Sgt. 1st Class Lane Duhon, Continental Color Guard platoon sergeant, any NCO who volunteers to come to the Old Guard is in for a unique opportunity to see the Army from a different perspective, he said.

“Leading highly motivated Soldiers who volunteer to be here and being able to see all the other noncommissioned officers and officers who want to be here and want to serve the duty that we are charged with, I think it diversifies NCOs’ careers and it helps them lead better and understand the dynamic of being a leader,” Duhon said.

Duhon credited multiple deployments and former operational assignments for instilling the discipline necessary to serve in the Honor Guard.

“This unit has opened my eyes from those experiences to see the Army from a different perspective ─ from being in an operational unit versus being here and being in a garrison, seeing a program of outreach to the civilian population,” he said. “We’re going to be balancing the military way of life with the civilian way of life. Hopefully we help the public understand us from our perspective and not a negative media perspective.

“Being a noncommissioned officer in the Honor Guard is a privilege, a unique opportunity to do something different in the infantry world and/or any MOS,” he said. “It’s a distinct privilege also to honor our fallen and be able to hopefully leave a lasting impression on people we perform for, leaving them with a positive impression of the military.”

Duhon will be heading back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and an operational assignment with the 82nd Airborne Division, but his time with the Honor Guard and “taking part and surveying the most prestigious job in the Army right now” gave him many learning opportunities, he said.

“I think I am going to take a better understanding of how to lead and mentor Soldiers from a 360-degree perspective versus one approach of getting Soldiers ready for combat,” Duhon said. “I have also had to learn a lot from Soldiers who have taught me lessons on how to do this job that we do here. Everyone knows a little something extra, so you can learn from everyone here.”

Click here to read more about the specialty platoons of the Old Guard.