He once stood guard at the tomb

Even though it has been almost 40 years, Marion Collins remembers the steady pace of those 21 steps, his rifle on his shoulder, always pointing away from the tomb.

He would pause – silently counting to 21 – then turn and retrace the steps.

He never said a word or showed any emotion.

There were times when the cold winds blew and his fingers wanted to snap off inside his gloves.

When the seasons changed, the ground would get so hot the polish would melt on his spit-shined boots.

Each day, hundreds of people would come to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where he rotated hourlong shifts.

He could see men standing behind the ropes with their hands over their hearts. From the shade of his sunglasses, he watched women pulling handkerchiefs from their purses to wipe the tears.

“That could be my son,” he sometimes overheard one of them say.

Beginning in fall 1962, Collins spent almost a year as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was an unforgettable chapter in his life.

“I'm not a hero,” he said. “The real hero is lying in that grave.”

He grew up the son of a sharecropper in the rural community of Cobbtown, near Metter. His family moved to Macon, Georgia, in 1951, where his father worked in the cotton mills.

Collins attended Lanier High, getting his strong background in ROTC before graduating from Dudley Hughes. He joined the Army in 1959 and was one of three soldiers selected from Fort Benning to try out for the
Honor Guard in Washington, D.C.

The 1st Battle Group of the 3rd Infantry, sometimes known as “The Old Guard,” is the Army's official ceremonial unit based in the nation's capital. It serves in military parades, ceremonies and funerals and is responsible for keeping year-round guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

When he arrived, Collins was assigned to the unit that serves as pallbearers for military funerals at Arlington. He also marched in President John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade in 1961 and took part in several formal ceremonies on the White House lawn.

But his most memorable experiences came at the tomb, which carries the unidentified remains of an American soldier from World War I.

Completed in 1931, it bears the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Unidentified soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were buried at the head of the tomb on Memorial Day 1958. An unknown serviceman killed in Vietnam was buried between them on Memorial
Day 1984. (He was identified through DNA testing in 1998.)

Collins received his discharge from the Army in 1965 and returned to Macon. He worked 23 years in civil service at Robins Air Force Base.

It doesn't have to be Memorial Day for him to remember what the tomb represents.

“It didn't affect me then as much as it does now,” he said. “I reflect on it all the time.”

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