Did they beat the drums slowly?
Did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?
– “The Green Fields of France” (as performed by the Dropkick Murphys)
The shirt is starched white… crisp, clean… spotless. The tie is black, knotted perfectly. The coat is navy… almost black, in bright sunlight is seems to shimmer… in the cold and grey of morning it is a darker, deeper hue. The pants are a lighter blue… not royal, not bright… a gold stripe runs down the outside of each leg… matching the gold of the rank on the guard’s arms. The uniform harkens back to the day when soldiers were mounted on horses… completely wool in the summer heat.The shoes shimmer and shine… even on cloudy and rainy days the shoes reflect and sparkle… they also click… loudly. Steps are counted… heels clicked, turns made… steps are counted… heels clicked. It is the tradition of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington to be the symbol of perfection… if there is perfection on earth it is the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard).
The Old Guard is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army… serving since 1784. Following World War II, the Old Guard has served as the Army’s official Honor Guard and escort to the President. The Old Guard has unique elements which include the U.S. Army Drill Team (HQ Co, 4/3 INF), Tomb of the Unkowns (HQ Co, 4/3 INF), Continental Color Guard (Honor Guard Co, 4/3 INF), Caisson Platoon (HQ Co, 1/3 INF), and Presidential Salute Battery (HQ Co, 1/3 INF). Old Guard soldiers are in Arlington National Cemetery daily rendering final honors to our fallen. These men represent the nation in both public ceremonies such as July 4th celebrations and private ceremonies such as the burying of our war dead.
Attending a full military honors funeral is an emotional event that causes a quietness in your heart and sobbing choke in your throat. Seeing the precision of the honor guard, hearing the band, shocked by the 3 volleys of 7 riflemen… finally “Taps” is played. Eyes are moist and cheeks are tear-stained. Memorial Day is a collective action of our nation to render honor to our war dead. Another day off from work it is not… it is not picnics or barbecues… it is a single day within a year that we, as a nation, ponder the horror of war and realize that we have sent men and women forth to die. The Old Guard represent us and they do with a pride that is befitting the deceased.
Watching the Old Guard practice is almost as moving as seeing them actually conduct a funeral. The Old Guard practices on the Fort McNair (Washington, DC) parade field… a few yards from softball fields and bordered by houses that are not only the homes of generals and admirals… but stately homes that are converted into duplexes that house young military members and their families… the older officers… decades into their careers… face and meet the younger service members… just a few years into their careers. Between these two elements… the old and the young… of the military is where the Old Guard trains.
It was a year ago, the soggy humid DC spring was bearing down on me like a wet blanket. A light breeze blew across the Potomac and pushed at my back… a slight relief from the sweat running down my body. A naval aviator… a friend… was beside me as we beat a quick pace on our daily run. Our over 40 bodies not being the quickness we were in our youth… once I had thought that Army colonels and Navy captains were old men… now they were peers, colleagues, friends. We had returned from 5 miles… starting at Fort McNair, out the main gate and up and around the Jefferson Memorial and the tidal basin. Cherry blossoms had come and gone… green sprouted. We had come back on to base… quickly flashing our IDs to the guard at the main gate… common sight for him… daily runners on a military post are a dime a dozen… one can’t spit without hitting some officer or civilian in the vain attempt to stave off age through running. Winded and back on base we moved into the pace of the runner getting close to the finish.
The flag and coffin… sitting in the bed of the F150 truck stopped me. The truck was parked on the parade field grass. Old Guard soldiers, headquartered at Fort McNair, in the daily uniform of camouflage stood around doing the typical grab-ass… talking, drinking water, and resting between training. One Old Guard soldier was in Army issue shorts and t-shirt… relaxed attire… but the ceremonial rifle with bayonet was not relaxed. He was practicing his drill and ceremony… another soldier, possibly a squad leader, stood nearby and issued commands… rifle snapped up… shouldered… and then returned to the ground. As I took it all in, a group of soldiers rose from the grass and assumed a formation. With precision, they began the quick march to the truck and executed the removal of the flag-draped coffin. Marching a few quick half-steps, they stopped… half-stepped in a 180 degree turn and then quick marched the coffin back to the truck bed. Rendering honors to our war dead is such an important task that it isn’t done without a lot of training.
I resumed my run… my friend and I were silent… usually our runs are full of mindless banter… when am I ever quiet?… not even on a run. However, I was silent now as I ran away from the parade field and the Old Guard soldiers training for their solemn duty. The waters of the Potomac river was on my right… an island separating DC from Arlington set in the calm waters shimmered a spring green… now the breeze was in my face… pushing me back. My thoughts weren’t on my pace or my breath… my mind drifted from the Old Guard to the garden of stones that grow at Arlington National Cemetery.
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh