PHILADELPHIA - Only 630 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badges have ever been awarded since its creation in 1958, second only to a badge awarded to U.S. service members who become astronauts.
During a private ceremony surrounded by his family and close friends, 77-year-old, John Francis Curtis Jr., former tomb sentinel, is now a badge holder for his honorable service to the U.S. Army at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Col. Johnny Davis, commander for the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall-based 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), presented the badge to at Curtis' residence here Feb. 11, 2015.
"What a pleasure it was for me to travel from Fort Myer, Va., to take part in a special ceremony," said Davis. "The duty of serving at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a very special assignment that only a select few in our nation's Army gets a chance to do, and Curtis did that."
Curtis served at The Old Guard from Aug. 7, 1958 until Aug. 7, 1959. It was during his service with the regiment when he volunteered to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The Tomb receives between four to five million visitors annually, including dignitaries and foreign heads of state.
It is the solemn responsibility of the Tomb Guard to honor and guard the Tomb 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Day and night, through summer heat and winter storms, the guards watch the tomb without pause.
He was retroactively awarded the badge because before 1959 it was issued only as a temporary wear item, which meant when Curtis left The Old Guard, he could not take the badge he was originally issued with him at the end of his duty.
Back then, Soldiers could wear the badge during their tenure as a Tomb Guard; however, upon completing their duty with the regiment, the badge was returned and reissued to incoming Soldiers.
In 1963, Army Regulation 600-8-22 allowed the badge to be worn as a permanent part of the military uniform, even after Soldiers have completed their duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
For Curtis, that time came 56 years after he completed his last walk, rifle in hand, at the Tomb. Curtis' family initiated the process of helping him obtain a badge after the regulation change permitted him to wear it permanently. That happened only after Curtis, who had moved on in life to become a successful architect after his stint in the Army, was properly identified as a bonafide former tomb sentinel.
"What a great patriotic American family," said Davis. "This is such a special day, and I am glad to share this day with you."
Sgt. Patrick Leamy, currently serving as a tomb sentinel and who attended the ceremony, said a lot has changed at the Tomb since Curtis served, but noted that one common characteristic of all tomb sentinels, regardless of generation, is the total dedication from each tomb sentinel to the Unknowns.
"It's not about us when we are out there walking the mat," said Leamy. "The only thing that matters is the Unknowns whom we guard every day and night."
He added that all Tomb Sentinels share that same feeling.
Leamy went on to say that meeting Curtis and being a part of the ceremony was a great experience.
"It was an honor to spend time with him and his family," said Leamy. "Curtis couldn't say much, but he had some expressions that let me know that he understood what was going on."
In addition to the badge, Curtis also received the official orders for the badge, two unit certificates and one engraved unit coin.
"He has always earned this badge, but now we have a chance to present it to him in front of his family," said Davis to Curtis, while embracing Curtis' hand. "I just want to thank you for your service at the Tomb, to protect those who gave up everything, to include their last names."