Spc. John Tilley walks past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Nation Cemetery.
John Tilley is a rare breed of American. It’s not so much that the 2000 graduate of North Iredell High School entered the military as an enlisted man despite having earned a college degree, which is a prime door-opener for officer candidacy.
It’s not that he did so as an Army infantryman, despite being qualified for any number of more specialized and less dangerous opportunities the military has to offer.
No, the thing that qualifies Tilley as unique is that he can be seen fulfilling his military obligation on marching in ever so precise ways, donning impeccably constructed dress blues while guarding the fabled Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
He earned his designation as a Tomb Guard last month and is one of only 561 military persons to have ever been so named in the 87-year history of the hallowed site.
Tilley, a specialist, joined the Army not long after earning a degree in history from Western Carolina University in 2004.
“I thought, I’m young and I’m physically fit and I’ve always had a great respect for the Army,” Tilley said. “With the situation the way it is and with other young people going in and doing their part, I saw no reason that I shouldn’t do the same thing.”
He did exactly that in March 2005 and a month later he was in basic training, better known as “boot camp.”
Tilley then moved on to infantry school, where he first learned of the storied Old Guard. He applied for the unit and was accepted.
He had initially received orders to a base in Italy, before being told he had been selected for a slot in the Old Guard, which, as its name suggests, is the oldest active infantry regiment.
“That was an honor by itself,” Tilley said. “And I was humbled to be asked to serve there.”
His honored and humbling days were not over, however.
Soon after arriving at the Old Guard – a 1,400-strong unit that provides a number of ceremonial services – Tilley volunteered to become what is known as a “new-man” and trained to become a Tomb Guard.
Sgt. Jeremy Kern, an Old Guard communications officer, said it can be a grueling process.
“The first part of it is a two-week class to see if you have what it takes to do this,” he said. “Not everybody does.”
While becoming a Tomb Guard is an honor, it was not exactly “pie duty,” as some refer to an easy military duty station.
“It is intense almost beyond comprehension,” Tilley said. “It is incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally. It essentially consumes you.”
Tilley spoke of sleep deprivation of up to 62 hours and taking up to four hours just to put his uniform on just right and shining his shoes for nearly an entire 24-hour day and restoring a Vietnam-era scabbard back into pristine condition.
A scabbard is the sheath that holds the bayonet onto the rifle. “We had to take an old one that was rusted green and by the time I was finished with mine, it was a black shiny gloss that you could see yourself in.”
But scouring scabbards and staying awake are not nearly the hardest part of becoming guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
After learning how to march with precision you can literally set your watch by – Tilley said turns have to be done with exactly 21-second pauses between them, calculated in the head, which on-lookers and inspectors monitor with timepieces – and memorizing the names and locations of the hundreds of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Tilley said he endured something called “composure training.”
“You can’t smile, you can’t talk, you can’t blink and you can’t show the slightest trace of emotion,” he said.
“This,” he said, “is done to build composure.”
Those who have visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have likely been a witness to the kind of composure about which Tilley is referring.
“The people who come there, some of them don’t even think we are human beings,” he said. “But we can hear and see what is going on, we just don’t react to it.”
That is, unless, the things he sees and hears are not in accordance with the deferential tone Tilley and the other guards are called upon to regulate in the vicinity of the tomb.
“We take our jobs very, very seriously,” Tilley said. “And when we see or hear people acting in a manner that is disrespectful to these men who not only gave their lives but also their identities we will politely but firmly say that it is required that everyone maintain an atmosphere of dignity and respect.”
Tilley was in training for the better part of a year before earning his vaunted Guard Badge.
Officially called The Tomb of the Unknowns Identification Badge, it is, by numbers, the most difficult military accoutrement to come by.
“I say this in all honor and respect,” Tilley said. “But even people serving in other elite forces, like the Navy SEALS or the Army Rangers, tell us that we are the real elite.”
Training to be a Tomb Guard has an attrition rate as high as 80 percent. This was the case in Tilley’s select class, in which only two of the 10 who started made it through.
Of the 560 people who were awarded the Badge before Tilley, 33 of them were revoked. And many of those revocations occurred after the erstwhile badge-holders had served out their military careers.
Tilley said the Guard Badge is the only such honor that can be taken away even after one’s Army boots are stored away.
Tilley’s Guard Badge was pinned on with the help of his mother, Kay Tilley, on December 20, 2007, the day after the soldier’s 26th birthday.
“That really surprised her,” said Tilley’s grandmother, Margaret Tilley. “She had no idea she would be called up to do that.”
Margaret Tilley said the family was “awed” by the experience.
She said she had last been to the Tomb in 1965 and “did not have a clue” about what went into becoming a guard.
“It was awesome and we are very proud of John,” she said.
John Tilley’s aunt, Susie Jordan, said her nephew’s way to the Tomb may have had some divine guidance.
Jordan said Tilley’s first visit to the Tomb came just two months before he entered the Army.
“We had been talking and he did not know what he wanted to do when he got in,” she said. “And on a trip back from Baltimore, I asked him if he would like to see the Tomb. He did.”
Jordan said they arrived at the Tomb in time to see the changing of the guard.
“And I said to him, ‘John, what if you were one of those guys?’ ” Jordan said. “And now, there he is. I think it’s awesome and really believe it’s part of God’s plan.”
Often referred to as the Tomb of the Unknowns, the white marble sarcophagus stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C.
It’s history traces back to March 4, 1921, when Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater.
The sarcophagus has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set into the surface. Sculpted into the east panel facing Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor.
It now contains the remains of soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
It had held remains of a soldier from the Vietnam War, but through DNA testing, those remains were discovered to be those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie and were returned to his family in 1998.
The Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
During daylight hours, guards walk half-hour shifts in the summer and one-hour shifts during cooler months.
At night, guards pull two-hour shifts but wear working uniforms as opposed to the crisp dress garb seen by most observers. The event also lacks the militant marching except when guards wish to hone the sharpness of their gait.
Tilley, who had 324 “walks” under his belt as of January 7, 2008, said those who guard the Tomb have a motto, which is more of the completion of an old Army saw.
“A soldier never dies until he is forgotten,” Tilley said. “And a Tomb Guard never forgets.”
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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