Tomorrow is Memorial Day, so it is only fitting to use this Constitution Monday to remember and honor the people who have gone before us. This is particularly true for the men and women who gave their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy in our nation. I want to honor those men and women by sharing part of a speech given by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) about Arlington National Cemetery and The Old Guard. It just seems to be the right thing to do.
Cotton began his talk by discussing what it was like to walk about the graves of the nation’s heroes – including President John F. Kennedy and military men and women of all ranks from numerous wars. He explained that the Thursday before Memorial Day is the “Flags in” day, or the day when a flag of the United States is placed at each grave site.
The instructions are to place the flags “vertical and perpendicular to the headstone.” Each row is completed by one soldier because “different boot sizes might disrupt the perfect symmetry of the headstones and flags.” Cotton includes a lot of interesting information in his talk, but the story he told about The Old Guard was most fascinating to me.
… The soldiers who place the flags belong to the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, better known as The Old Guard. My turn at Flags In came in 2007, when I served with The Old Guard between my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Old Guard is literally the old guard, the oldest active-duty infantry regiment in the Army, dating back to 1784, three years older even than our Constitution. The regiment got its nickname in 1847 from Winfield Scott, the longest-serving general in American history. Scott gave the regiment the honor of leading the victory march into Mexico City, where he directed his staff to “take your hats off to The Old Guard of the Army.” Perhaps Scott felt an old kinship with the 3rd Infantry, because he had fought the British alongside them outside Niagara Falls during the War of 1812.
Among the few regiments to participate in both of the major campaigns of the Mexican War – Monterrey in 1846 and Mexico City in 1847 – The Old Guard made history alongside American military legends. A young lieutenant later wrote that “the loss of the 3rd Infantry in commissioned officers was especially severe” in the brutal street-to-street fighting in Monterrey. That lieutenant’s name was Ulysses S. Grant.
The 3rd Infantry was part of the main effort again the next year at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, the last stand on the road to Mexico City by Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The Mexicans had a numerically superior force on the high ground on both sides of the only passable road to the capital. But Santa Anna underestimated the Americans’ ingenuity and audacity. With a young captain of engineers blazing the path, the 3rd Infantry hacked through the jungle and crossed ravines to attack the Mexicans from their rear, finishing them off with a bayonet charge. That captain’s name was Robert E. Lee. And to this day, The Old Guard remains the only unit in the Army authorized to march with bayonets fixed to their rifles in honor of their forerunners’ bravery at Cerro Gordo.
The Old Guard returned to the battlefield in the Civil War, fighting with other “regulars” – the career professional soldiers of the federal government, as opposed to the volunteer soldiers of the state regiments. The Old Guard fought in every major battle in the eastern theater from the First Battle of Bull Run to Gettysburg, where they helped hold off Confederate charges against the weakened salient in Union lines at the Wheatfield. Watching from the nearby Round Top Hills, a state militiaman later wrote, “For two years, the regulars taught us how to fight like soldiers. At the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, they taught us how to die like soldiers.” Though out of the fight, the regiment later served in Grant’s headquarters at Appomattox Court House as he accepted the surrender of their old pathfinder from Cerro Gordo.
The Old Guard then went west following the American frontier, and ultimately to the Philippines at the turn of the century, fighting under General John “Black Jack” Pershing against Muslim radicals in Jolo and Mindanao – the very places where al Qaeda and the Islamic State have franchises today. They guarded our southern border with Mexico against Pancho Villa during World War I, and they trained the vast army of new recruits for World War II before deploying to Europe in the final months of the war.
It was after World War II that the Army assigned its oldest unit to its most sacred ground: Arlington National Cemetery, whose seal calls it “Our Nation’s Most Sacred Shrine,” and with good reason. To borrow from Tocqueville in a different context, those rolling hills seem “called by some secret design of Providence” to become our national cemetery.
Cotton continued his talk by giving a lengthy history lesson about Arlington National Cemetery and the part that The Old Guard plays today. The Old Guard is now “the Army’s ceremonial unit and official escort to the president.” It marches in inaugural parades, performs ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, and provides “color guards and a drill team for events around the capital.”
The most sacred duty for The Old Guard is providing “military-honor funerals in Arlington National Cemetery.” No matter what else is happening, the “funerals always come first, and they are a no-fail, zero-defect mission.” The Old Guard practices the ceremony several times each day because it has to be completed perfectly for the fallen soldiers. For the state funeral of President George H. W. Bush, hundreds of members of The Old Guard practiced for six days to be ready. Cotton was told, “Our standards remain the same, whether it’s President Bush or a private first-class.” Indeed, the funerals of the regular soldiers continue no matter what else is happening – not the funeral of a President or the 9/11 attack on our nation.
On that beautiful morning, the 9 o’clock funerals were underway when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, blasting debris across Washington Boulevard into the cemetery’s southeastern corner. The Old Guard’s Medical Platoon rushed to the scene, becoming the first soldiers to deploy to a battlefield in the War on Terror. Yet those funerals continued. So did the 10 o’clock funerals. And the 11 o’clock funerals. Over the next month, even as hundreds of Old Guard soldiers pulled guard duty at the Pentagon and carried remains from the crash site, funerals never stopped in Arlington.
A foreign military leader made a poignant statement as he was escorted through Arlington National Cemetery in order to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He was given an explanation of what The Old Guard does, and he saw all the headstones out the window of the car. He paused for a long time and then said, “Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.”