Specialist Michael Diehl stands at attention in the dress uniform he spent eight hours preparing. On command, he glides forward toward possibly the world's most hallowed rubber mat: the one sentinels walk across when guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns.
CLACK! A steel plate on his heel snaps against his other heel as he pivots in unison with his commander and the sentinel he is relieving. A salute. An order. Diehl takes position at the edge of the 63-foot mat. He marches 21 steps, skimming forward with his head perfectly still, eyes straight ahead, stone-faced at all times. He turns, faces the tomb for 21 seconds, turns again, pauses another 21 seconds, then retraces his steps.
Pause and repeat. He gazes past the tomb, toward the nation's capital. Rain begins to fall. Diehl is 21. He is far from Hays, Kansas, his hometown.
He is honoring. And he is honored.
Diehl is a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns, created after World War I at Arlington National Cemetery to honor war dead whose remains were never identified.
The tomb has come to symbolize the sacrifice of all American soldiers, and the memorial itself is laden with symbolism and tributes.
In its crypts lie three veterans, from World War I,World War II and the Korean War. A Vietnam veteran once buried in the tomb was removed in 1998, after his remains were identified. Later wars have not had any truly “unknown” soldiers.
“When you stand there, you think of how the unknowns represent everyone,” Diehl said. “Someone in the audience is thinking, ‘That could be my brother,' and you realize how important it is to be there.”
Kansan at guard
Diehl is a member of the elite Tomb Guard Platoon of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard regiment charged with the Army's top ceremonial duties.
His background is common Kansas. He grew up in Hays, graduated from the town's Catholic high school and joined the military after deciding he wasn't quite ready for college. He began basic training on April 1, 2003, during the early stages of the war in Iraq.
His enlistment “scared me to death,” said his mother, Mary Diehl, who still lives in Hays.
But Diehl learned about the Tomb Guard Platoon through his recruiter and applied. He arrived at Arlington in September 2003.
Only about 20 percent of those who apply end up guarding the tomb. Diehl's assistant relief commander, Sgt. Adam Dickmyer, said Diehl meets the most important demand: He has a determination to never give up.
“Everyone who guards this tomb does it the same way, every minute of every day,” he said. “If you're not a good person who follows through on what you're determined to do, you're not going to make it.”
Beyond attitude, guards must have aptitude. They have to be top scorers on Army skill tests and meet other demanding mental standards. Diehl had to memorize 17 pages of information on the cemetery and the tomb, then write it back longhand with no more than five mistakes. A missing letter counts as a mistake.
Finally, a soldier has to look the part. He or she has to be roughly 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall and physically fit. The platoon is divided by height into three groups so that soldiers face each other eye to eye during the changing of the guard. Diehl is with the 5-foot-11-inch group.
A sentinel's duties
The three groups rotate 24-hour shifts guarding the tomb. Soldiers wear formal dress uniforms during cemetery hours and informal battle dress at night.
The day before a shift is spent preparing for the shift. Shoe-polishing and uniform maintenance can take up to eight hours, Diehl said.
The guarding itself can be demanding. Most guards at some point try an “Iron Man” shift, taking turns guarding with one other sentinel and standing for 22 hours in a 24-hour day.
After nine months as a guard, sentinels qualify for the Tomb Guard Identification Badge, which has been awarded to fewer than 600 soldiers since the 1950s. Diehl is No. 529.
The badge is the second-least awarded in the military after the astronaut's badge. It can be revoked even after the soldier retires for actions that discredit the tomb.
That has created a folklore about allegedly rigid conduct standards — how sentinels can never swear or drink alcohol. But on their days off, they are the same as any other off-duty soldiers.
“These are good boys, but they're not saints,” said Mary Diehl. And despite their efforts to be as uniform as possible, they're individual human beings.
“I know the service can be hard on them,” she said. The marching style “has been murder on Michael's knees.”
Michael Diehl said he'd be lying if he said he hadn't thought about taking a different assignment, rather than one where gliding 22 steps down a mat instead of 21 would be considered a form of disrespect.
The key, he said, is to not think of it as pressure.
“I look at it as something I do because I enjoy doing it. If I looked at it as a responsibility, it would be much tougher to do.”
Diehl's enlistment runs out this fall. He hasn't decided yet what he'll do. He's the second of four children, with an older brother at the University of Kansas law school. His dad is a lawyer too.
If Michael decides to go back to school, he will be much more focused, his mother said.
“No matter what he chooses, he's been able to do something pretty special,” she said. “That will help him in whatever he does.”
Diehl said the experience of guarding the unknowns has taught him much about service, and about the dedication people feel to those who have died before them.
A soldier, even one at attention, can observe a lot while standing and marching for 30 minutes, following the same words, same motions and same tradition followed over decades. It's touching at times, Diehl said, though guards aren't allowed to show emotion.
“One afternoon there was an old veteran in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank,” he said. “At the beginning of the changing of the guard the person changing the guard will say it's requested that everyone stand and stay silent.
“Obviously we know there are certain people who won't be able to stand up, and I'm seeing this guy and thinking, ‘He's not going to stand up.' But this guy did everything in his power to stand up, and he stood up through the whole ceremony.
“He was with his family. They were telling him to stay seated, but he wouldn't listen to them. You stand at attention the whole time, but you know what's happening.
“That's when you remember what you're doing.”
A soldier approaches to relieve Diehl. Another changing of the guard is about to begin. Rain falls over the cemetery. The soldier is dismissed and returns to his barracks, eyes straight ahead, stone-faced at all times.
HOW TO WALK THE MAT
Guards follow meticulous rituals when watching over the graves:
The soldier walks 21 steps across the tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
On the 21st step, the soldier turns and faces the tomb for 21 seconds.
The soldier then turns to face the other way across the tomb and changes his weapon to the outside shoulder.
After 21 seconds, the process is repeated.
This is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guards.
From April 1 to Sept. 30, the guard is changed every half hour. From October 1 to March 31, the guard is changed every hour.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard