Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton recently reflected on America’s tradition of according respect, honor, and gratitude to those who laid down their lives for their country. Between combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton served with the “the Old Guard,” as the Army Third Infantry is known, and has written Sacred Duty. A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery (Harper Collins, 2019). It is a remarkable read.
The book recounts the history of America’s oldest active-duty regiment, which became the nation’s Ceremonial Guard in 1948. This unit (formed 1784) predates the Constitution, fought in the War of 1812, in the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and has been headquartered in Washington D.C. after 1948.
From the nation’s capital, its thousands of physically fit, active-duty members are best known now for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, but they also oversee the daily military honor funerals at Arlington. On an almost nightly basis, Old Guard members receive the flag-draped caskets of the war dead at Dover Air Force base (“If a soldier is coming home, the Old Guard will be there to honor him,” Cotton says.) They provide protection in the Inaugural Parade, act as Color Guard at ceremonial events, and it was Old Guard medical corps, who were dispatched to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 to attend the wounded and exhume the dead. They did this while the 9 AM, 10 AM, and 11 AM funerals at Arlington continued uninterrupted.
“Funerals First” is the motto of the unit, which Cotton describes as a “no fail, zero defect mission.” The Old Guard oversees up to twenty funerals a day at Arlington, but practices ceaselessly. Every morning, teams rehearse folding the flag, the three-volley salute, and key sequences in the funeral ceremony. Their objective: perfection for the fallen and their families – whether the fallen is aviator and former-President George H.W. Bush or an unknown Private First Class. The Old Guard’s is a self-imposed pressure to flawlessly perform this sacred duty, honoring the nation’s heroes.
Cotton stresses that The Old Guard, more than any other regiment in the Army, is deeply connected to the nation’s heroic and hard-fought past. Arlington National Cemetery (once known as Mount Washington) was first owned by George Washington Custis (“Wash”), grandson to George and Martha (Washington himself had advised on the purchase). When Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis (“Wash’s” only surviving child), the land passed to the Lee family. After Lee resigned from the Union army to lead the Confederacy, Union forces occupied it (May 1861), and in 1864, made it a burial ground for the nation’s mounting Civil War dead. After the war, the Lee family sued for re-possession of the land and won in court. But in an act of magnanimity and reconciliation, George Washington Custis Lee (Robert E. Lee’s son) deeded the land back to the United States. That deed was received by Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the slain president. The heirs of the two adversaries jointly committed to honoring the nation’s fallen.
The young men and women of the Old Guard are heirs to all this, custodians of the nation’s “most sacred shrine.” One foreign leader remarked to a member of the Guard, “You take better care of your dead, than we do of our living.” Cotton sees this as a free nation’s tribute freely given to those who embody the best in us.
We often feature “New and Noteworthy” works on our site, and for parents, teachers, and older students, this is one such book.
Mary Beth Klee