Someone from my home town in Michigan wrote this about his experience in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment
I found it quite touching.
Thoughts for Memorial Day: By Troy Martz
When I graduated high school I left immediately for the US Army - I was signed up to be trained as Airborne Infantry with hopes of going on to Special Forces. (I figured that if I had to go to war I wanted to be the BEST trained warrior on the planet!).
Uncle Sam had different ideas - I fit the right height/weight requirements and had high test scores and a clean criminal record so I was "volunteered" to go to the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). Instead of jumping out of airplanes and training in the jungle, I learned about pressing Dress Blues and shining brass. A little spit and polish is great, but this was 24/7 right in the midst of the best ceremonial soldiers in the world. But if you worked hard, stood straight, and could keep from passing out in the DC summers, you would get the opportunity to see things and meet people that very few soldiers ever experienced.
Even among the elite there are elite - I was selected for Honor Guard Co, 1st Presidential Caskets Platoon. We did lots of ceremonies around DC - White House and Pentagon reviews were nearly weekly events and we were usually selected to do the most high-visibility jobs. When Gorbachev was the first Soviet ruler to go to the White House, I was in the second row about 6' feet from him and Pres. Ronald Reagan. I even had a minor "run-in" with Pres. Reagan himself once - a humbling event for a lowly Army Private.
These were hard jobs yet exciting. But this is not the primary mission of The Old Guard. The Old Guard (the Army's oldest active unit - including George Washington's personal guard), is tasked with providing Final Honors for fallen soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. My team's job was to carry the casket and fold the flag. I estimate that in the 4 years I was there I participated in 1,500+ funerals. My platoon was the best in the Battalion, winning the competitions so often that they stopped letting us compete. I truly was honored to be the best of the best at what can be considered the most solemn job in the Army. Along the way I held every position on the 6-man team and everything but team leader on the 8-man (the ones who lift the casket onto the horse drawn wagon - caisson). My favorite position was "Present Man" - if you've ever seen an Army funeral when the flag is folded one man on the team "presents" it to the chaplain and salutes the flag a final time before the team leaves. Our 8-man Full Honors team trained harder and longer than anything I've ever done - anything less than perfect was unacceptable when honoring the fallen. We would time it perfectly so my salute was finished as Band's the last note of "America the Beautiful" finished.
My last year I was promoted and lead a 6-man team of my own. We were very good but we weren't hyper-obsessive (ALL Honor Guard soldiers are at least a little OCD). The Army was winding down for me - I was now married, living an hour from base, and getting ready for college.
It was the end of May 1990. My LAST day of funerals in Arlington (I was even in borrowed uniforms since mine had been turned in) and we had a light schedule of only four or five. The last funeral of the day was one that we saw too often - no family or friends - just the Cemetery rep, chaplain, and us. You might think that with no one watching things might be allowed to slip, but I was always proud of my team most in those times. We understood that WE were representing the "grateful Nation" in honoring this soldier's service one last time. As we waited for the hearse, we were all talking about how this was my last funeral and the guys were teasing me about becoming a "college boy" the next week. My team performed flawlessly and with pride and sadness I got on the bus knowing that it would never happen again.
A couple minutes later the cemetery representative came on the bus. He said that when there is no family to give the flag to they end up reusing it. But he knew how much I loved my duty and gave that flag to me to remember my time in Arlington.
That flag sits in my home office as it has for years. Every time I look at it I think of that sacred ground, my brothers in service, and the men and women we were honored to serve one last time in Arlington National Cemetery.
They are why we have Memorial Day - those men and women who have gone before us and given of themselves so that our nation will always be the Land of the Free. Let us never forget their sacrifices, strive to be worthy of their gift, and never compromise protecting that gift for future generations.