Members of the U.S. Army Presidential Salute Battery, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), have the duty of firing final salutes during memorial ceremonies for service members laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. and are responsible for rendering honors to visiting foreign dignitaries and heads of state at the White House, Pentagon and throughout the National Capital Region.
This elite element of the Old Guard, the only one of its kind in the Army, consists of about 34 Soldiers, most serving as an indirect fire infantryman, ranging from private to sergeant first class.
"To be a part of a brotherhood and of the few indirect fire infantrymen in the whole Army that only renders honors the way we do is the highest honor for me," said Sgt. Aaron Ratigan, the platoon's operations sergeant.
The platoon is stocked with high-gloss black, three-inch 5,775-pound World War II vintage anti-tank guns mounted on 105mm Howitzer chassis. Each gun weighs 5,775 pounds and fires 75mm blank shells with one-and-a-half pounds of gunpowder.
Most ceremonies require a five-man staff and a two-man team for each gun. The staff consists of an officer-in-charge, who initiates the firing commands; the non-commissioned officer-in-charge, who marches the battery into position and controls the firing of the backup gun; the watchman and his assistant, who both act as backup and the counter, who counts rounds and signals "Last Round!" to the gunners.
Every position is an important role in the mission's success, Ratigan said.
The two-man team at each gun is comprised of a loader and a gunner. Without making a sound, the loader must fit a 75mm shell into the block noise at a certain angle. The backup gunner and loader are to be the fastest and most experienced of the platoon. The standby gunner and loader are the most qualified on battery so that they can quickly react to a misfire or malfunction.
The 21-gun salute is the highest honor the military can bestow and is reserved for presidents and visiting heads of state. This tradition dates back to the 1956 Inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower.
The number of salutes varies depending on the rank of official. For colonels and one-star generals, eleven salutes are fired, thirteen for a two-star, fifteen for a three-star, seventeen for a four-star and nineteen for a foreign dignitary.
"The most important part of the salute is how much it means to the family," said Spc. Markus William, a member of the battery.
Incoming Soldiers undergo rigorous training for nearly a year to become a part of the Guns Platoon.
"There isn't any room for the unmotivated so it's great to see Soldiers go from a 'new guy' to an invaluable asset," said Ratigan.
Once qualified as a loader, a Soldier can excel into other positions in the platoon through more training.
"It takes more practice and experience to become a gunner," said Ratigan. "You need visual and auditory verification that you're going to achieve fire."
People watch the guns platoon's timing and precision unfold during ceremonies such as the annual 1812 Overture concert, Twilight Tattoo and full honor arrivals at the White House, where the platoon is placed at a far distance in the middle of the public eye.
The Presidential Salute Battery maintains the highest level of ceremonial proficiency through persistent training and will continue to perform to the greatest principles and traditions of The Old Guard.