There is a tomb in Arlington National Cemetery that is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year by sentinels from the Third United States Infantry Regiment Old Guard. Each soldier who guards the tomb spends hours and hours practicing so that each pass by the tomb will be precise. Each pass takes 21 steps -- an allusion to the 21-gun salute. After the soldier makes his turn, he waits 21 seconds before beginning his return march.
The guards at this tomb always carry their rifles away from the tomb, so they will carry it on their right shoulder going in one direction and their left shoulder coming back. In order to be a part of this most prestigious detail a soldier must stand at least 5 feet, 10 inches and cannot be taller than 6 feet, 4 inches.The soldiers who serve in this capacity usually do so for two years. The guards spend much of their free time studying the history of notable figures interred in the Arlington Cemetery. They are immersed, understand, in their duty -- a word which Robert E. Lee called the "most sublime" in the English language.
Since 1937 this tomb has been patrolled around the clock. Several times the guards have been given permission -- and even ordered -- to secure the site and to stand down during dangerous weather -- even hurricanes. The standard answer of the guards in such cases has always been, "No way, Sir!"
The tomb, of course, bears the inscription, "Here rests in honored glory an American Soldier, known only to God," for I am speaking of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- or soldiers, as it is now known because the tomb holds the unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. For a time a fourth soldier, from the Vietnam War, was interred there. This soldier's remains have since been identified and returned to his family for burial.
If you have ever witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, you know what an impressive and moving ceremony it is and you know that the fine young men who are chosen for this duty take it very seriously. Our military makes a big deal about this, understand.
To quote Lincoln, "It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."
It is Memorial Day weekend. Monday is the day set aside to remember all our fallen heroes of all our nation's wars. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this, too, because no freedom or liberty that we as a nation have ever enjoyed was ever secured through oratory or negotiation. The United States of America was conceived in a crucible of fire and there have been enemies of nation determined to cause us harm and make sure our noble experiment in government of, by and for the people -- again paraphrasing Lincoln -- does, indeed, perish, from the earth.
So far, every time we have been threatened the men -- and more recently women -- or our Armed Forces -- have stood up and said, "No! You will not destroy my nation. You will not harm my people. You will not destroy the liberty that has been purchased at such a great price over the centuries. Not on my watch you won't."
War is a terrible thing and I was recently reminded by my good friend Colonel Will Coleman, U.S. Army Retired, that the true warrior always prays for peace.
But even before we were a nation, the great patriot Patrick Henry said, "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"
Henry answered his own question, of course. "Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others will take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death."
Thanks be to Almighty God, we have had hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who have lived by the mantra of Patrick Henry and since the first one fell on the village green in Lexington, Mass., on that April morning in 1775, over a million of America's finest have made the supreme sacrifice.
Most of us know someone personally who has been killed in battle. If we haven't had a relative or friend killed in action we probably can't understand the heartbreak that accompanies the telegram that begins, "We regret to inform you ..." just as we cannot fully appreciate the sacrifice of the families whose sons and daughters have served or continue to serve in harm's way.
But for one small part of one short day each year perhaps we can pause to give thanks and to remember all of those who have died too young on our behalf.
There is a lot wrong with the United States of America, but there is still a lot more that is right--and a lot more right than wrong. We are still the last best hope for the world and we have climbed to our lofty position by climbing on the very backs of our fallen heroes.
May God bless their memory and may America, finally, begin once more to bless God. Their deaths must not have been in vain.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.