Proud Ohioan leads the watch over Unknowns

Richard Schuck presents the U.S. Army the way it wants to be seen.

As Sergeant of the Guard at the nation's most sacred military shrine, the 35-year-old Madison. Ohio, native makes sure that the thousands of yearly wreath-laying and guard-changing ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns are performed with appropriate pomp and circumstance, and that its guards are turned out with appropriate spit and polish.

A “It is time-consuming, but it is all about taking pride in what you do,” says Schuck, the boyish but no-nonsense supervisor of 30 immaculately uniformed soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry who guard the stately marble tomb around the clock, every day, no matter what the weather, and perform its most hallowed rites to honor the nation's war dead.

Schuck and his sentinels take their jobs, and their grooming, extremely seriously.

The stone-faced sentries continuously perform an elaborate guarding ritual in a roped-off plaza where a raised sarcophagus marks the grave of an unidentified soldier from World War I, and in-ground slabs honor his counterparts from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

In an allusion to the military's foremost honor, the 21-gun salute, each guard marches back and forth down a rubberized mat in 21-step increments punctuated by precisely drilled heel-clicking, rifle shifting and 21-second pauses.

They perform intricately choreographed guard changes every half-hour during tourist season, each hour during the winter, and every two hours when the cemetery is closed. Sentinels also participate in dozens of formal wreath-laying ceremonies each day, as different groups visit the cemetery to pay their respects to the nation's fallen heroes.

“It makes you really proud of your country,” said eighth-grader Erica Bensman, who watched the guard change last week with a student group from Holy Angels Middle School in Sidney, Ohio.

Schuck and his charges view maintaining a spotless appearance as their way to pay personal tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Between pressing, hand polishing their shoes, and precisely positioning pins and medals on their dress blues with a micrometer, each sentinel spends hours before his shift arranging his military uniform to perfection.

Schuck, a soft-spoken man who gardens and rides horses in his spare time, says he enjoys every minute of his service at the tomb.

“Besides serving overseas, what more honorable or prestigious job could there be than guarding the unknown soldiers who fought and died protecting our freedom,” he asks.

Schuck is so committed to maintaining his crisp look that he remains standing during a two-hour interview to avoid creasing his uniform and seems chagrined at scuffing a shoe while showing visitors around the memorial.

“Who knows how long that will take to fix,” he sighs, examining the dull spot on his toe as he explains that new military dress shoes require 40 hours of hand buffing and polishing before they gleam enough for tomb service.

Only a quarter of the soldiers who apply to become tomb guards are accepted. It takes them as long as eight months to learn the necessary rituals and pass a 100-question exam about Arlington Cemetery. Although soldiers guarding the tomb are silent unless they challenge occasional interlopers who approach the sacred spot, they often answer questions from visitors when they're off duty.

Most of those who inappropriately approach the tomb are uncontrolled children or overzealous tourists attempting to take pictures. In 1984, a former government employee took a sentinel hostage with a handgun, but was taken into custody by off-duty guards, who tackled the gunman from behind. Nobody was hurt.

Eight sentinels are on the tomb's premises at any given time. They await guard duty in a worn barracks concealed under a Greek Revival amphitheater west of the tomb. The barracks is dormitory like, with a kitchenette and institutional carpeting. Its white concrete block walls are covered with military plaques, photos of generals, and military sayings.

A framed 1948 poem by Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, holds a place of honor in yellowing calligraphy by the door:

“Alone and far removed from earthly care
The noble ruins of men lie buried here.
You were strong men, good men
Endowed with youth and much the will to live
I hear no protest from the mute lips of the dead.
They rest; there is no more to give.”

A giant flat-screen television over a brown leather couch displays the scene at the tomb via remote camera. It helps muster the troops if there's an emergency and allows them to critique their execution of military rituals the way athletes review game tapes.

In addition to overseeing the unit's military protocol, Schuck counsels his men on problems they encounter in their day-to-day lives, whether it is opening a checking account or building credit so they can buy their first car.

“Soldiers who report to any unit in the Army are 18 or 19 years old and need someone to coach them in everything they do,” says Schuck, who lives in suburban Virginia with his wife and three children.

Shuck graduated from Madison High School in 1986, where he wrestled and ran track. He initially served at a base in the California town where Clint Eastwood was mayor, and patrolled the streets of Los Angeles to keep the peace after its riots. Before being stationed at the cemetery, he participated in military actions in Panama and Bosnia, and served in Alaska and Kentucky.

He served as the sergeant in charge of coordinating Arlington National Cemetery's military funerals before his February promotion to lead the tomb guards. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment commander, Colonel Chuck Taylor, said Schuck was singled out for his “peerless personal and professional excellence.”

“His ability to train and lead these elite soldiers in a highly visible environment was demonstrated by his uncompromising standards as the memorial affairs noncommissioned officer in charge and experiences as an infantry squad leader,” Taylor said.

Those who have known Schuck the longest say they expected he'd be successful in the military.

His mother, retiree Carol Schuck of Reading, Pennsylvania, says he was always tidy and helpful, and even saved her life by jumping into the family car as a middle-schooler and hitting the brakes when it began dragging her down their driveway on River Street, after she slipped.

She is surprised that he ended up leading Arlington's tomb guards, because he showed little interest in them when she took him to the cemetery as a child with his brother and two sisters.

These days, Schuck is fully absorbed by his duties.

“The thing that amazes me down here is the pride and discipline of the sentinels that serve here,” says Schuck. “You watch them sit at the table and eat a hamburger one minute, and walk out the door the next minute with a totally different face on. The pride and respect they have for their job would amaze you.”

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