By Mr. Ronald W Wolf (Army Medicine)January 29, 2015
Although all service in the U.S. military is honorable, few duty stations carry more pride, more admiration, and more dignity than the sentinel walk at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
When that Soldier is also a medic, two of the most respected jobs in the Army are linked together.
On Jan. 23, Sgt. Luke Porter, medic with the 3rd Infantry Regiment--The Old Guard--completed his 21-month tour of duty as Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Porter became only the third medic ever to have the honor of duty in defense of the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The sentinel walk and the changing of the guard is one of the most popular tourist stops at the most revered and storied military cemetery in the U.S. Each sentinel walks a well-worn track stepping exactly in the footprint of the sentinel who came before.
The walk is a precision maneuver. The sentinel walks 21 steps south behind the Tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces north for 21 seconds. The sentinel then takes 21 steps north and repeats the process. After each turn, the sentinel executes a shoulder-arms movement to place the weapon on the shoulder away from the Tomb, showing the sentinel stands between any possible threat and the Tomb.
The walk of 21 steps symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed on fallen war heroes--the 21-gun salute.
Because of the accuracy involved--movements of the walk are mastered down to fractions of an inch--training to be a Tomb Guard lasts six to nine months. The effort to become a better Soldier never stops, however. "There is constant effort to improve," said Porter.
Porter has seven years of service under his belt. He was stationed at Fort Bliss from 2008 to 2011 and at Fort Myer from 2011 until this January.
Nearly 630 badges have been awarded to Tomb sentinels. Porter has Tomb Guard badge #623 (as well as the Expert Field Medical Badge). Medics previously awarded the Tomb Guard badge are Sgt. Maj. Brian Jergens (then Staff Sgt., May 1998-June 2000, badge #466) and Spc. Samuel Barnett (December 2012-June 2014, badge #620).
To become a Tomb Guard, Soldiers need a recommendation from their command. This recommendation is only likely if applicants have already established themselves as outstanding Soldiers. Soldiers also interview with and must pass scrutiny of the Sergeant of the Guard. The result is that only Soldiers of the highest caliber are selected.
"What I've learned here will impact the way I behave as a Soldier," Porter said, referring to future postings. "What we do here is not to make you good at uniforms or good at walking or good at memorizing; it's to make you a better Soldier." It's also about how a Soldier behaves in a group environment, he explained.
The Old Guard has other medics in specialty platoons as well: Sgt. Kristen Overby with the Old Guard Regimental Orientation Program, Sgt. Justin Sciandra with the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon, and Pfc. Robert Sopha with U.S. Army Drill Team.
Medics in the special units are present at ceremonial and other functions on the parade grounds at Summerall Field or Comny Hall at Fort Meyer and at Arlington National Cemetery. They remain quietly in the background waiting to be called if needed to assist Soldiers or, since ceremonial functions are widely attended by civilians, to aid civilians as well.
Although Porter has transitioned to a new duty station, the tradition he embraced carries on with other sentinels who continue to walk in honor of the U.S. war dead. They walk 21 steps, pause, and walk back, with precision and class, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, in the snow and wind, heat and rain.