WASHINGTON — Rain or shine, Tomb Guards stand vigil honoring American warfighters who died in conflict but were never identified.
One of those guards, Craig Smith, a Muskegon, Michigan, native served in the early 1970s, and decades later, he fondly remembers his days “walking at the mat,” he said.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, D.C., has been one of the country’s most sacred military shrines, and according to the cemetery’s website, it is a place of pilgrimage and reflection for thousands every year.
This Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, the tomb will commemorate 100 years since the first Unknown Soldier was buried at the national cemetery. Smith plans to be there for the ceremony a century in the making.
Called to serve
Smith enlisted in the Army at 19, toward the end of 1971 and beginning of 1972, he said. The Army sent him to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training.
Growing up in Michigan, Smith’s family revolved around motors. His father worked five decades at Continental Motors, where many tank engines were built, he said. His mother stayed home with him and his siblings.
Among Smith’s five siblings is a twin brother and Smith jokes, “I’m the better-looking one,” he said.
“We all stayed out of trouble during our growing-up period, as boys did a lot of different sports,” he said about him and his siblings. “Basketball was my forte.”
In addition to playing sports, the basketball standout also followed the news. When Smith graduated high school in 1971, he knew it was only a matter of time before the draft notice arrived at his door.
“My mother gave me the draft letter,” he said. “She knew exactly what it was.”
Over 100,000 men enlisted that year through the Selective Service System. In all, over 1.7 million men were drafted and fought in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1971.
“Vietnam was in [the news] every day,” he said.
Smith originally enlisted in the Army as an infantryman and planned to become a heavy artilleryman later, he said. However, during this time, he was approached to join the Army Honor Guard in Washington, DC. The only catch was serving an additional year on the Honor Guard.
Walking the walk
“I accepted that challenge and was blessed to work with a lot of great men and women,” Smith said. “The training was long and hard, and always on the point of perfection. Luckily, my mother had a lot to do with ingraining some of that background and for me, too. I just might do better.”
Because the Honor Guard is part of the Old Guard, Smith said if he washed out, he would be assigned to infantry, something his instructors never forgot to remind him of.
“They held that over your head if things didn’t work out,” he said. But for Smith, washing out was never an option.
Prospective Honor Guard candidates were screened during basic training. According to Smith, his physical attributes increased his chances of becoming an Army Sentinel.
“I’m assuming being tall and attractive wasn’t the only stepladder that I had to go through,” he said. “Test scores were very important.”
Smith was selected for the Honor Guard based on those attributes, as well as his willingness to volunteer for an additional year of service. After that, he was assigned to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, then known as Fort Myer.
In nearby Fort A. P. Hill, Virginia, the Honor Guard hopefuls learned funeral ceremonies like folding flags, handling rifles, and other exercises handled by Honor Guard companies. But it wasn’t all cut and dry training, Smith said.
“Once we were out in the middle of a field and we were told to stand at attention,” Smith said, adding that the instructors left as the Soldiers stood. “It was one of those [times] we don’t challenge orders. Everybody was looking around to see what’s happening.”
Instructors returned and placed buckets of water by the students’ legs. By this point, the Soldiers had been standing at attention for somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour. Smith said the hopefuls picked up the heavy buckets and continued standing at attention.
“It was a process we didn’t understand, but when you’re doing a full honors funeral for somebody, you could stand in front of the chapel at Fort Myer, and be there for two hours,” Smith said.
They were sweating as the sun bore down on them. And yet, they stood motionless at attention. Smith said that was just one kind of training he underwent.
There was a high percentage of washing out. But those who made it, like Smith, “clearly understood the endgame,” he said, which were “the opportunities we would have, [and] the history we would be part of.”
Smith noted that his early days in the Honor Guard were highlighted by the visit to China by then-President Richard Nixon and the 1973 funeral of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During Smith’s tenure as an Honor Guard member, there was never a dull moment. Smith welcomed senior leaders to the Pentagon, presented the colors at the White House, or served during funeral services at Arlington National Ceremony, besides working presidential events.
Although he thrived in the Honor Guard, Smith had his sights set on his next goal: joining the Army Sentinel Guard.
Tomb guards, an offshoot of Honor Guard, are chosen following more rigorous training. They represent the Honor Guard’s cream of the crop.
The honor of being a Tomb Guard has been given to less than 700 Soldiers, including Smith. The ceremony has remained constant, despite Soldiers coming and going.
Since 1948, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24-hours a day by Tomb Guards. According to the cemetery’s website, during the changing of the guard ceremony, an impeccably uniformed relief commander announces the change of guard.
The new Sentinel leaves their quarters below the Memorial Display Room in the Memorial Amphitheater and unbolts their M-14 rifle. The relief commander is then cued to begin the ceremony, which is held regardless of time.
During regular hours, the relief commander salutes and instructs the spectators to remain silent as they approach the tomb. Then a white-glove inspection of the weapon takes place, followed by saluting the unidentified troops and walking the black mat.
During the walk, they march exactly 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb, turn, and face east for 21 seconds, turn again and face north for 21 seconds, then take 21 steps down the mat and repeat.
Smith said he could play the motions in his head even today, but he said jokingly that he is too old to be able to physically perform them.
In the beginning, Smith wasn’t sure what the rattling noise in his ear was when he stepped on the black mat. The bayonet shook uncontrollably because of his arm. But then training kicked in and the nervousness dissipated.
Smith changed guard regularly over the years following. No matter if it was snowing, raining, or sunny.
“If it’s cold out, you know it as soon as you go out the door and you have to psychologically get yourself ready,” he said, explaining that extreme weather is handled similarly.
“The best thing that could happen for a Sentinel is if it’s raining,” he said. “People hear that and think that’s kind of weird. Well, if it’s not snowing, if it’s raining. The sun’s not out if it’s raining, and nobody’s coming to watch you if it’s raining.”
Even though they welcomed an audience, according to Smith, the rain always felt the most relaxing for the Sentinels.
“We were all on some level crazy,” Smith said, joking about the other Tomb Soldiers. “How we talked to each other, how we worked together, how we demanded perfection.”
When they weren’t standing guard, they trained and critiqued each other, watching for any slight missed movements. Even when they were tough on each other, Smith knew it made them better Tomb Guards.
Despite how challenging their training was, or how hard they were on each other, the team cut loose when they had a chance, he said. To make it that far, they had to find time to enjoy themselves.
Despite coming from all walks of life, when they were together in Washington, D.C., the guys stood out like a sore thumb. “Everybody was between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 [and] we had the same haircut,” he said, adding “there was a brotherhood.”
Even today, “I could call a handful of people and say, I need you here tomorrow, and there’s no doubt in my mind all those guys would be here,” Smith said. “There’s a brotherhood that civilians or other people don’t understand.”
Smith watched the spectators during the guard change, and even if they didn’t realize it, he watched them, too. Smith noticed family members of missing Soldiers while walking the mat in Arlington some days.
Still today, Smith can remember the visitors. Some would kneel and pray during the changing of the guard ceremony, so that is how he identified them. It was the early 1970s, so they could be friends and family of warfighters from either world war, Korean War or Vietnam War.
“That’s what the job was for,” he said. “[We showed them their] unknown is being protected. We had the saying back at the tomb that Soldiers never die until they are forgotten, [and] Tomb Guards never forget.”
“When you walk in Arlington [National Cemetery], you see hundreds of acres of tombstones,” Smith continued. “They’re all heroes, every one of them is.”