My husband had the pleasure of serving with the U.S. Army’s Old Guard on two separate occasions for a total of five years.
Also known as the 3rd U.S. Infantry, it is the oldest active duty Infantry unit in the Army, dating back to 1784. The Old Guard is the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the President.
While serving with the Old Guard, my husband was an Infantry Company Commander and was one of two battalion commanders. He presided over numerous funerals, retirement ceremonies, wreath ceremonies and participated in two Presidential Inaugurations.
Old Guard soldiers are known for crisp, perfect execution of all movements. Learning how to march properly takes weeks and everyone must pass a proficiency test before being allowed to march in any events. Additionally, the uniform must be pressed and creased to perfection, medals and shoes shined and hair kept short. Soldiers take pride in their uniforms and do all of their own pressing on unit steam presses. It can take hours!
Physical training is important as this unit is the face of the United States Army. All soldiers are expected to keep themselves in top physical shape or they will be reassigned. Not only must you be fit to be in the Old Guard, there is also a height requirement. Men must be at least 5’10” and women must be 5’8”. Sorry, no shorties allowed.
Over 1,000 Army funerals are conducted per year at Arlington National Cemetery; this averages out to about 6 per day. Old Guard soldiers serve as casket bearers, members of the firing party or the marching platoon and horse-riding caisson Soldiers. Carrying out funerals with decorum and respect is a job these soldiers take seriously. It is not always easy for the soldiers to maintain ceremonial composure at funerals. Seeing the grief firsthand of tearful children, wives, husbands, grandparents, siblings, and friends as they deal with a loss is especially difficult.
Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are somber, but also beautiful events. They provide families with a sense of closure and feeling that their loved one’s service to the nation had special meaning. Sometimes, however, things don’t go as planned. The most humorous/traumatic event that happened to my husband while he was with the Old Guard was when one of his men stepped forward to receive the flag to pass on to the widow and fell into the open grave. Without missing a beat, the chaplain pulled the young officer out and the funeral continued, though the widow seemed to be a bit concerned about the welfare of the man involved.
In addition to Infantry Companies, The Old Guard also has the following specialty units:
- Sentinels, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier- Soldiers assigned to the tomb maintain a 24 hour vigil over one of the United States’ most sacred sites.
- The Continental Color Guard- This is a select group of Soldiers that carry the American Flag and other colors at all major events to include the Presidential Inauguration and the Super Bowl.
The Presidential Salute Battery- These are the soldiers who fire the Howitzers for State Arrival Ceremonies and for funerals of high-ranking officers and dignitaries.
- The U.S. Army Caisson Platoon- There are approximately 55 horses and three caissons that are used in funerals for soldiers killed in combat, officers, and other dignitaries including the President.
- Commander in Chief’s Guard- This company dresses in Revolutionary War uniforms and carries muskets to symbolize the history of the Army.
U.S. Army Drill Team- This is a very competitive unit, with soldiers training for months to earn the right to participate in a Drill. They wow crowds with their precision at venues across the country.
- Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps- Known as the FDC,thisisahighly professional military band that also dresses in Revolutionary War uniforms and performs at the White House,andnumerous other venues.