Alington duty a soldier’s highest honor

When Blaise Gallahue of Pascagoula was picked from his Army boot-camp class to be an honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he wasn't too interested. He wanted to be a ranger, recalls his parents, James and Mary Catherine Gallahue.

But he became a sentinel, served with the honor guard for 21 months and is one of only 500 soldiers who earned the coveted Wreath Medal.

I wanted to interview Gallahue about his duty at Arlington National Cemetery (1987-88), but that wasn't possible. He is still serving his country, now as a battle Captain, 3rd Army, Coalition Forces Component Command, in Kuwait. I contacted him by e-mail.

“The most challenging part was standing out there in summer or winter and enduring the heat or cold for hours, while maintaining a perfect posture,” said Gallahue, 38. “If you took eight to 12 shifts a day, which occurred frequently in the summer, your back, knees, and ankles would go numb and you would find it difficult to know your body position.”

He said it was tough emotionally to see visitors, who obviously had lost loved ones, break down and cry. “I was up there many days when aging Vietnam veterans would stand there for a while and then wait until most of the crowd had left and say thank you, or say prayers.”

During his duty at Arlington, then-Corporal Gallahue said, “There is no greater satisfaction. You're here for a purpose to preserve what has been here for years. You feel nervous, but it's not fear. It's the excitement, the full glory of being here.”

His dad, Jim, says, “Blaise is very disciplined. He is someone who believes in the significance of what the Tomb represents.”

The Gallahues made trips to see their son perform the precision 21-step march on guard duty. “Our pride in what he did is unbelievable,” they said. The Arlington plaque listing the medal-winning guards will forever include the name of Blaise Lucian Gallahue, now married with three sons.

“I went alone early one cold March morning and was the only person there except Blaise, the Unknown and God,” recalled his mother, Mary Catherine. It was an unforgettable experience.

Asked what prepared him for the demanding duty at Arlington and a 16-year Army career, Gallahue responded, “I have a great set of parents.”

Everyone should visit Arlington National Cemetery, above the Potomac River overlooking Washington, D.C. It exudes so much wonderful history, tradition and patriotism. The 1,100-acre estate dates back to George Washington's family, and later belonged to Robert E. Lee when it was confiscated by the U.S. government as a military cemetery.

The selection of guards for the Tomb, two from each state, is based on poise and discipline. They are tall and slim (waist size cannot exceed 30 inches). They must memorize the location of more than 175 notables laid to rest in the sprawling cemetery. “I would to this day be able to find them,” said Gallahue, a graduate of Pascagoula High and Ole Miss. “It has been 15 years, but I feel like I could grab my M-14 and walk the mat.”

It's awesome to watch the precision march and change of the guard, every 30 minutes during the day. The guard takes 21 steps and salutes the tomb of the American soldier known only to God for 21 seconds, representative of a 21-gun salute, the highest honor given. Guards spend five hours a day preparing their royal blue woolen uniforms with gold stripes for duty, sometimes in 100-degree heat and sometimes in snow and ice.

A guard has been on duty 24/7, 365 days a year, since 1930.

When Hurricane Isabelle approached Washington in 2003, military members assigned to the Old Guard, classified as a military unit so they are all men, were given permission to suspend the assignment. “No way, Sir,” responded the guard detail. Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb is not just an assignment, but the highest honor that can be afforded a soldier.

That's the approach to duty that the men and women of this country have shown since 1776.

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