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Guarding our unknown heroes
Courtesy of the Sweetwater (Texas) Reporter
28 May 2005

By Kimberly Gray/Special to the Reporter

There are many men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives while serving in the armed forces to protect our country. There are also many families and individuals who have experienced great loss due to the loss of a loved one in battle. However, there is no greater sacrifice than those who are now entombed in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arlington National Cemetery.

These people have not only lost their lives but their identities. However, them being in this tomb gives hope to those left behind that their loved has been found and may be in that very tomb. There is now a body to represent the unidentified of all the major wars -- WWI, WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War -- in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Roscoe man Don Richburg had the opportunity during his time in the Army to serve as a guard of this tomb. He volunteered for the draft in 1958, about five years after the Korean War had ended and became part of the Third Infantry of the U.S. Army.

Richburg had no idea when he began his service the duties he was about to get the opportunity to perform. He completed his basic training in Fort Carson, Colorado. On the third day there he was interviewed and later told he was going to Fort Myer, Virginia, which is near Arlington, Virginia, where the national cemetery is located.

From there he was one of 60 men chosen to train for what he thought was some type of drill team. "We weren't aware Fort Myer furnished the guards for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Richburg said.

Richburg was later one of seven or eight men chosen to serve with the Honor Guard Platoon. Women began serving in this capacity in the 1990s.

Richburg began working as part of the platoon in November 1958. He did not actually begin guarding the tomb until January 9, 1959, but guarded other important places such as the Joint Chief of Staff's home. He served as a guard of the tomb until he got out of the Army in June 1960.

As a sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknown, he would stand guard for two hours and then be off six during a 24-hour period. He would then be off for 24 hours, and he would spend many of his days of practicing his walks and other motions.

Richburg said he had to learn a great deal about the tomb as part of requirements to be able to serve in that capacity. However, the requirements are even more stringent now. A guard of the tomb must learn 300 facts about the tomb and pass a test by a 95 percent margin or higher with 100 questions on it.

The information they must learn is not only about the tomb but also about the Arlington National Cemetery and the United States Army.

Now, over 80 percent of soldiers who try out for this duty do not make it. Each soldier must have discipline, stamina and present an outstanding soldierly appearance. They must also be able to flawlessly perform seven different types of walks, honors and ceremonies.

On March 25, 1926, orders were sent directing the formation of an armed military guard at the tomb because visitors were using the original crypt as a picnic table.

At first, the tomb was only guarded during daylight hours.

Then on July 2, 1937, the guard was increased in size and they began guarding the tomb 24 hours a day. Their mission was to maintain the highest standards and traditions of the Army and our country while keeping a constant vigil at this shrine. They were also to prevent any desecration or disrespect of the tomb.

There are three reliefs as-signed to the Tomb Guard Pla-toon, each consisting of nine enlisted soldiers.

The rank of a sentinel or a soldier who stands guard is typically Private First Class through Specialist. The average age is 22. Richburg was 21 when he started out.

The idea of honoring the unknown dead came from Europe after World War I when Great Britain became the first country to do so. The idea of doing this for American un-knowns was first denied. On March 4, 1921, a resolution providing a place for our unknowns was approved.

The first body of an unidentified soldier, killed in France, was laid to rest there on November 11, 1921. This soldier represents all the unidentified and missing from World War I.

Since then, an unidentified American service member has been laid to rest with the highest honors for World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to represent all who were lost.President Ronald Reagan led in the ceremony for the Un-known Soldier from the Vietnam War in 1984. According to Richburg, later the Vietnam unknown was identified and the family pushed for the body to be relocated to a private cemetery. Currently the Vietnam crypt remains empty.

When ceremonies were completed, a simple marble crypt was placed over the Unknown Sol-dier. Later an elaborate sarcophagus was made after too many people had been asked to have lunch on the Unknown Soldier's grave.

The tomb, as seen today, was designed by Lorimer Rich and sculpted by Thomas H. Jones. It was made entirely out of white yule marble from Colorado and was completed on April 9, 1931. The crypt covers are simple marble with only the years of the wars engraved on them.

Richburg said it was such an honor for him to be able to serve the Army in this way. "When I was walking in that cemetery at 2 a.m., I felt so grateful that these people had died so I could do what I did. I don't even know what they all went through, but I have great respect for them," he said.

During his time as a sentinel, Richburg stood for three death watches for deceased dignitaries and also participated in several ceremonies for retiring Army personnel.

Also during his time as a guard, on Memorial Day Eve 1959, the changing of the guard when he was going on duty was televised on the Edward R. Murrow show, "Person to Person."

On February 7, 1957, the first Tomb Guard Identification Badge authorized for wear by the Army was presented to tomb guards. Richburg wore a badge while in the service but had to return it when he got out of the Army. In 1962, sentinels were allowed to keep the badge and could wear it on their dress uniforms while still in the military.

Richburg was sent his badge on June 1, 2003, when all retired sentinels in good standing who did not have one were able to receive one. There is a badge board that determines if a former guard will lose his badge. There have been badges rescinded.

Richburg said he has made lifetime friends during and since his time in the Army. He is now a member of the Board of Di-rectors for the Society of the Honor Guard. The group hosts a re-union of former honor guards every two years in Arlington, Virginia. The next time they meet will be in 2006. Richburg regularly attends the reunion.

Richburg has been a member of the society since its inception in 1999. It was formed after discussion of organizing a group in 1998 during the 50th anniversary of when the 3rd Infantry took over the guarding of the tomb.

"All of the guys I worked with are still living and come to the reunions," Richburg said. In fact, one of the guys he worked with was recently a contestant on the reality television series, "The Great American Race."

He and his wife were the only older couple who competed in the last race and did well only getting beat out by a few others.

"Next to God and family, this has been the best thing that happened to me," Richburg said of getting the opportunity to serve as a guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Richburg enjoys sharing his story with others. He pointed out that the Society of the Honor Guard has a video available for the public for educational purposes. Anyone interested in purchasing it can contact Richburg or log onto www.tomb-guard.org.

Richburg and his wife, Fran-ces, live west of Roscoe where he continues to farm and she is a retired teacher. He also worked for RS&P Railroad for 16 years.

They raised five children and now have grandchildren.

Posted: 28 May 2005