A known honor

Metamora Township High School graduate Kristopher Hardin can't hide the passion he has for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Courtesy of the Journal Star

An icy wind whipped across the Potomac Friday and up the hill to where Army Private First Class Kristopher Hardin stood, as if frozen, his rifle on his shoulder. But Hardin didn't shiver. And he doesn't wipe away the sweat when he stands like a wax statue in the same spot during summer's swelter.

For Hardin, a 1995 graduate of Metamora Township High School, is one of the elite sentinels guarding Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia. For him, the momentary discomfort of the weather is far outweighed by the sense of purpose he gets from his job – honoring those who gave their lives for their country.

The highly choreographed “changing of the guard” at the white marble tomb surrounded by a sea of crosses overlooking the slow-moving Potomac River is one of Washington, D.C.'s most somber and memorable experiences.

“It's wonderful. It's very moving,” said Laurie Hamilton, 41, an American history teacher from Marianna, Florida, who watched Hardin in the guard-changing ceremony Friday. “I won't forget this experience. Especially during this time with us being at war, it means even more.”

The ceremony had a similar effect on Hardin the first time he saw it.

“I was just in awe,” Hardin said. “I never thought I could do that. It was the just precision, the way they carried themselves, the honor. I could have shed a tear right then during that guard change, it was just so moving.”

Now, after 13 months of intense training, he's one of the sentinels that he admired so much.

“I've got such a passion for it,” Hardin said. “My passion for my job is definitely higher than a lot of people's. I wish everyone could experience this kind of opportunity.”

In the underground guard quarters, it takes two men to help Hardin prepare for his next “walk,” his hourlong guard duty in front of the tomb. They remove lint from his dark wool overcoat with masking tape. One uses a spray bottle of water to perfect the creases in his pants. They tug and shift his uniform until every detail is correct, while carefully watching the time.

Then, he follows his relief commander, Staff Sergeant Angel Espada, outside onto the plaza where the omb is located. Even on a blustery winter morning, about 50 people have gathered for the changing of the guard ceremony that takes place every hour. In the summer, the guard changes every half hour and the crowd can include hundreds.

With elaborate precision, Hardin's relief commander inspects his rifle in a slow, methodical way. Hardin and the sentinel he is relieving exchange orders. When they leave, Hardin stands alone in front of the tomb. He marches 21 steps. He turns, pauses exactly 21 seconds, and then marches 21 steps back. The silence is broken only by the click of his steel heels when he turns or stops.

“It's hard to put into words what you feel out there,” Hardin said before heading out. “I've met Medal of Honor recipients, a lot of veterans, and they're saluting you. I want so much to say, ‘… I should be saluting you.' It can be very emotional out there. I've got little kids telling me thank you when they leave.”

Less than two years ago, Hardin was managing a restaurant in Georgia and making $50,000 a year. But after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks he said he felt discontented. He joined the Army, where his pay was cut in half.

“I think about that a lot,” acknowledged Hardin, who is married with two boys, ages 4 and 2. But he has no regrets.

Each time he prepares to go out for his guard duty, he walks by a poem mounted on the wall of the guard quarters. “You are guarding the world's most precious gifts …”

It reminds him why he is there.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in 1921; the highly ceremonial guard-changing ritual began in 1958. The tomb contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I and II and Korea. The remains of a Vietnam soldier were exhumed in 1988 and identified through DNA testing.

The sentinels are all volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry, or Old Guard, based at Fort Myer, Virginia. About 80 percent of the trainees drop out before they finish.

Would-be sentinels memorize 16 pages of Arlington National Cemetery history and the grave locations of almost 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony and how to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition. They receive “composure training,” so they retain the appropriate, respectful demeanor at all times.

“Itches go away if you don't think about them,” Hardin said. “I've had locusts crawling on my neck, and those things have little claws. You get flies landing on you. One guy got a bee sting.”

They use a metronome and mirrors to practice their angles and the cadence of that well-known walk. After passing each test phase, they are allowed a “walk” at night when few onlookers are present.

The final test is a 100-question exam about the cemetery. Immediately after receiving his silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge on February 2, 2005, Hardin began training newcomers.

Hardin's mother, Sherrie Kissee, 48, of Dunlap, said she always knew he'd do something special. While she was surprised when he entered the Army, she said he's always been careful about his appearance. She recalled that he wore a sport coat, and sometimes a tie, to high school while his brother and their classmates wore T-shirts.

“Kristopher always had a style about him,” she said. “He always wanted to excel.”

The sentinels work 24-hour shifts and spend hours attending to their uniform. The high-gloss shine on their shoes can take four to six hours to achieve, Hardin said. The stress of always striving for perfection is high.

The assignment is particularly difficult for someone like Hardin, who has young children.

“It's real hard on family life,” said Hardin, who is older than many new sentinels. “I sleep during that off-day and then I have to work on my uniform. So I'm at home shining my shoes and trying to take care of my two boys and trying to get some sleep in. It's pretty hard to do with kids.”

The assignment also is physically taxing.

Walking in the seven-pound shoes, with steel toes and steel heels, wears down the knees and ankles. Many sentinels develop back problems. Hardin said he's already having problems with his right hip. There's a lot of turnover. Sentinels are asked to stay a minimum of 18 months. Hardin said he hopes to stay at least two years.

“I've spent a lot of time with the unknowns at night. … They're a big part of my life right now,” Hardin said. “I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.”

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