Tag Archives: Tomb of the Unknowns

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

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.

This Month in NCO History: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive — Oct. 12, 1918

Sgt. Samuel Woodfill was once referred to as “the greatest American Soldier of the World War” by the celebrated Gen. John J. Pershing.

Woodfill earned the high praise for actions during an Allied offensive in Cunel, France, which also resulted in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was fought from Sept. 26, 1918, until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. It stretched along the Western Front during World War I and was the largest frontline commitment of Soldiers by the U.S. Army during the war.  Its objective was to push through enemy lines and capture a railroad station in Sedan, France, to cut off a vital German supply route.

On Oct. 12, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Woodfill was leading his company through a dense fog towards the village of Cunel when it came under heavy fire. Then a lieutenant, Woodfill set out ahead of his line with two Soldiers trailing and located a German machine gun nest. Woodfill successfully flanked the nest and eliminated three of its four occupants with his rifle. The fourth occupant charged Woodfill. After a hand-to-hand struggle, Woodfill killed the enemy with his pistol.

The company continued its advance when it came under fire again. Woodfill once again rushed ahead. Despite being hindered by the effects of mustard gas, Woodfill shot several of the enemy while taking three others prisoner. Minutes later, Woodfill rushed a third machine gun pit and killed five men with his rifle before jumping into the pit with his pistol, where he encountered two German soldiers. With his ammunition exhausted, Woodfill grabbed a nearby pickax and killed both.

With the machine guns silenced, Woodfill’s company continued its advance through Cunel under severe fire.

At the end of the war, Woodfill was the most decorated American Solider to have participated. Along with the Medal of Honor, Woodfill was the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Meriot di Guerra, the Montenegrin Cross of Prince Danilo and various other awards. He resigned from the Army upon his return to Fort Thomas in November 1919 but re-enlisted three weeks later. With the Army trimming its force to pre-war levels, Woodfill rejoined the ranks as a sergeant.

Pershing selected Woodfill to join Sgt. Alvin York and Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey as pallbearers at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1921. He retired as a sergeant in 1922.

Woodfill joined the Army in 1901 and spent time in the Philippines, Alaska, Kentucky and along the U.S.-Mexico border before ending up in Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1917. On Christmas Day of that year, Woodfill married Lorena Wiltshire and the couple purchased a home in Fort Thomas.

After World War I, Woodfill was encouraged to run for U.S. Congress, an effort he rebuffed. Instead, he worked as a carpenter, a watchman and even tried starting an orchard before the nation — and the Medal of Honor recipient — was thrust into global conflict once again. In May 1942, two months after his wife died, Woodfill was commissioned an Army major and spent two years as an instructor in Birmingham, Ala.

In 1944, Woodfill resigned from the Army and moved to a farm in Switzerland County, Indiana. He was found dead there Aug. 13, 1951. Woodfill was originally buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison, Ind. His remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery in August 1955.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa