The slate grey sky ominously framed the bright green rolling hills of Arlington National Cemetery, as the stark white headstones bring to mind all the men and women who fought and died to protect our Nation. Many are participating in the time-honored tradition of Flags In, such as Army Spc. Anthony Moore who for the first time will be taking part in the annual Memorial Day weekend remembrance of our fallen heroes.
The mission is unique to members of the 3D United States Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), who has the distinction of being the oldest active unit in the United States Army, dating back to 1784. The Old Guard is the Army’s ceremonial unit which serves as the Honor Guard for the President of the United States, as well as services for fallen service members, veterans and their family members at Arlington Cemetery. They are also most notably known for guarding the Tomb of the unknowns in Arlington.
Moore, a 22 year-old New Orleans native, joined The Old Guard six months ago, and is still learning “The Old Guard Way”, although not “newbie” to the Army, Moore has racked up nearly five years of service and one tour in Afghanistan. During this year’s event, his first, he has taken a few moments to reflect on those heroes, as he painstakingly places a flag in front of each headstone he has been assigned.
“I was reading some of [the headstones] and some of the wars they had been through, some two or three major wars in our history,” Moore said. “God, that had to be rough back then. We have all of this because of these kind of people right here. It’s good to honor these people once you see what they have been through.”
The Old Guard handpick’s each soldier from recruits fresh out of basic, to those battle tested in combat and still remains one of the highest honors bestowed upon any Army personnel. There have been few changes in regards to the tradition that hallmarks this group, but one such change is that most of the soldiers placing flags have personally witnessed war, firsthand and now have the duty of honoring the fallen.
Colonel Johnny K. Davis serves as the unit’s regimental commander, and is exactly what you would expect out of someone who has been charged with leading such a distinguished group. Although this is his second tour with The Old Guard, his first occurring during the 9/11 incident, he takes his command seriously and the duties of his group are considered to be one of great honor and dignity.
This amazing man took a few moments to reflect on his own service, as he stood on the pristine white marble of the Memorial Amphitheater he recalls a day that very well could have been his last;
“That was a rough day,” Davis says as he remembers his military vehicle being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Kandahar during the surge in 2010. Davis’s sergeant major provided cover by maneuvering his vehicle in front of his commander’s and taking the next hit. Fortunately, his full team lived to see another day.
“That idea of living and serving one another I actually learned here during my time with The Old Guard,” Davis said. “It changes you.” Two soldiers who served under Davis’s command are laid to rest in Arlington.
As the rain moves on, you can watch the members of The Old Guard, numbering more than 1,000 prepare to enter the sacred cemetery, where they will place a single flag in front of each of the 228,000 headstones throughout the 624 acre property. An event that will take approximately four hours.
Commander Sgt. Major James Issac Hill, Jr., a 22 year veteran who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan took a few moments to reflect of the 15 years of ongoing war, the souls lost and those that are still among us. Just like Davis, Hill has fallen brothers and sisters who have been laid to rest in the cemetery.
“It’s like a video running in fast forward,” Hill said. “You think of the good times. You think of the bad times. You think of the camaraderie. You think of the soldiers that you have lost and the near misses. You think of the possibility of how close it came to you not being here. You think of a higher power. You think of what is really your purpose for being spared when someone else was taken.”
Soldiers from The Old Guard go about their honored and revered task of placing flags throughout the cemetery, honoring the well-known such as General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, boxing legend Joe Louis as well as those lesser known, yet no less important soldiers who served our country.
Come Monday, Memorial Day, President Obama will once again lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, honoring all those who have fought and died for our country. I encourage all of you, to do the same. Let’s all take just a few moments, on this sacred day, and remember what has given us the opportunity to “pursue our happiness”. Freedom and Liberty are not freebies given by our government, they have been bought and paid for by the blood of all those who have chosen to uphold and preserve it.
Patrick James has worked as a firefighter/EMT for several services throughout the years, as well as a custom metal fabricator, certified personal trainer and chef.
Growing up in the rural suburbs of Detroit, it was during his frequent trips to Northern Michigan where he learned of his love for hunting and fishing. Spending several of his adult years in upstate South Carolina, his love of extreme sports took root in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains as he learned to rock climb and kayak.
“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and vanish into air.” ~ John Quincy Adams