From The VG Bookshelf: Sacred Duty by Senator Tom Cotton
From The VG Bookshelf: Sacred Duty by Senator Tom Cotton
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) is an Army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Between his tours, however, he was assigned to the famed “Old Guard,” which serves at Arlington National Cemetery. His new book, “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery,” gives the reader an amazing behind-the-scenes account of what service in the Army’s oldest unit looks like.
Published in time for Memorial Day, Senator Cotton reveals a part of his personal story of Army service in “Sacred Duty,” as well as the broader history of both The Old Guard (the famous nickname of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment) and of Arlington National Cemetery itself. This book is not meant to be a deep, scholastic history. What it is, is an engaging personal narrative of what serving in The Old Guard is like, a tribute to the men and women who have given their lives for this country, and a tale of deepest respect for those who serve in the many and varied ceremonial functions of the 3rd Infantry. This is Senator Cotton’s first book, and it is both highly emotional and well-crafted. The reader would never know that this was a first book.
The senator read excerpts from his book to an audience at Hillsdale College a month before it was published, which can be seen here:
The 3rd Infantry Regiment’s history stretches back to 1784, when the militias of the Revolutionary War were disbanded, and a single infantry regiment was created to be a “regular” standing Army. The 3rd Infantry – which gets its numerical designation from the War of 1812, when the regiments were numbered by the senority of its commander, and The Old Guard had the third-most senior commanding officer (chapter 2, “America’s First Defenders,” page 57) – is the proud owner of 55 campaign streamers that hang with its regimental colors. The regiment was temporarily deactivated after World War II, but was reactivated on April 6, 1948, and given a permanent home at Fort Myer, which adjoins Arlington National Cemetery. From that point onward, the 3rd Infantry took responsibility for the cemetery’s funerals, and the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknowns. These two roles are among the most well-known of The Old Guard’s functions.
Yesterday, torrential rain and drastic wind gusts overcame America’s most hallowed grounds. Visitors ran for cover. News…
The 3rd Infantry Regiment is made up of two battalions (1st and 4th Battalion – you have to love those Army numbers), which divide up the myriad responsibilities that come with being a part of The Old Guard. The 1st Battalion is dedicated to the funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery, which includes the “dignified transfer” of remains as they are flown in from the battlefield to Dover Air Force Base, the Caisson Platoon (which includes the last remaining working horses of the Army), and the Presidential Salute Battery (responsible for gun salutes). The 4th Battalion covers the ceremonial missions of The Old Guard. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Platoon, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, the Honor Guard Company, the Fife and Drum Corps, the Continental Color Guard, and the U.S. Army Drill Team are all a part of 4th Battalion (chapter 3, “‘Honor, Values, and Tradition’,” page 136).
Senator Cotton also tells the harrowing story in “Sacred Duty” of The Old Guard’s involvement on the front lines on September 11th. Due to the proximity of Flight 77’s impact into the Pentagon to Arlington National Cemetery, The Old Guard was some of the first soldiers on the scene of the attack immediately after it occurred.
Back at Fort Myer, the threat of more attacks locked down the base. Aside from soldiers conducting funerals, the regiment secured the base and prepared for the unexpected. Perimeter gates were shut and armed guards were posted at key facilities. It was an all-hands-on-deck operation. Even the Fife and Drum Corps, which usually performs in the 1779 Continental Musician uniform, stored its fifes and drums that day, put on combat fatigues, and drew Kevlar helmets and gas masks to guard the regimental headquarters. Specialist Lauren Panfili, a new flutist, understated matters when she said, “The day that they issue gas masks to the Fife and Drum Corps is not a good sign.” (chapter 2, “America’s First Defenders,” page 48)
The Old Guard worked at the Pentagon for the next month, involved in securing the crash area, the search-and-recovery work of finding remains, and sorting debris for personal effects – while still maintaining their exacting standards for each funeral at Arlington, and never once leaving the Tomb of the Unknowns alone.
There is a heavy emphasis on the exacting standards that the 3rd Infantry demands of each soldier. Nothing less than perfect is demanded and expected.
We held our nation’s fallen heroes close to our hearts in everything we did. From the care of our uniforms to the precision of our marching to the grooming of our horses, it was our sacred duty to honor the fallen in ways big and small. Our standard was simple: perfection on every level. A funeral in Arlington is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the family. And for us, service in Arlington National Cemetery was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege.” (chapter 4, “Inside Arlington with The Old Guard,” page 141)
The final anecdote finishes up the whole of the book so perfectly.
No one summed up better what The Old Guard of Arlington means for our nation than did Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He recalled a moment with a foreign military leader while driving through the cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “I was explaining what The Old Guard does and he was looking out the window at all these headstones. After a long pause, still looking at the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.'” (Epilogue: “The Old Guard Never Stops,” page 285)
I have had the privilege of visting Arlington twice in my life – once as a young teenager (and I was honored with the chance to participate in my school’s laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), and once as an adult (and as a mother introducing my daughter to what the sacred grounds of Arlington represent). After reading Senator Cotton’s book, I deeply wish I had been able to spend more time there on those two occasions. “Sacred Duty” will give you a deeper appreciation of Arlington, The Old Guard, and the sacrifices that our armed forces have made over the course of our nation’s history. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Featured image: original Victory Girls art by Darleen Click