The first time U.S. Army Sgt. Erik McGuire performed the elaborate guard-change ceremony for spectators at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, he worried he would make a mistake.
“Getting out there in front of the crowd for the first time and that fear of messing up was tough,” McGuire said. “It takes time to get over that.”
A 24-year-old Bessemer native, McGuire in August became the 603rd soldier awarded The Tomb Guard Badge since it was first issued in 1958.
McGuire, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, is also the first military police in 11 years to be awarded that badge. It is the second-least-awarded military badge, right behind the Astronaut Badge.
“The Tomb Guard — from my military experience, those guys are one of the best. They’re America’s platoon. I wanted to be part of that challenge,” McGuire said.
It’s a challenge steeped in military history.
The Tomb holds the unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. An unidentified American soldier from World War I was the first soldier interred there in 1921.
Tomb Guards, after undergoing rigorous testing and training, conduct a silent vigil 24 hours a day, year-round and in all weather conditions.
The sentinels are volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — The Old Guard — based at Fort Myer, Va. Serving since 1784, The Old Guard is the oldest active-duty Army infantry unit and is the Army’s official ceremonial unit.
The guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is changed every hour on the hour Oct. 1 to March 31. From April 1 through Sept. 30, when the weather is warmer and more people visit, the guard is changed every half-hour.
As part of the vigil, a sentinel marches 21 steps on a 63-foot rubber-surfaced walkway behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns again and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes another 21 steps and repeats the process. The 21 steps and seconds symbolize the military’s highest honor — the 21-gun salute.
For the changing of the guard, a sentinel unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces spectators and asks them to stand and remain silent.
The relief commander conducts a white-glove inspection of the rifle. The relief commander and the relieving sentinel then meet the retiring sentinel in front of the Tomb.
All three then salute the Unknowns, all of whom have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor.
For McGuire, Tomb Guard duty means working 26-hour shifts, three days out of every nine. For two other days in that nine-day rotation, the guards put in seven-hour days making sure they remain proficient in the guard change procedure.
For McGuire’s family, friends and former teachers, the designation has been a tremendous source of pride.
The fourth-generation McAdory High School graduate’s name came up during a recent professional development meeting of teachers and faculty there, said Antjuan Marsh, McAdory’s instructional assistant principal and one of McGuire’s former teachers.
“We were discussing some good things that were going on. Top of the list was Erik McGuire,” Marsh said.
“I remember him being energetic, inquisitive,” Marsh said of McGuire. “He was respectful.”
McGuire’s mother, Annette McGuire, is quick to note that it was a sergeant at Fort Myer who requested that McGuire apply for Tomb Guard service.
“One of the sergeants saw him and the professional way he carried himself and asked him to do the training,” Annette McGuire said.
Unlike many Tomb Sentinels, McGuire had been at Fort Myer only five months, rather than the customary year, when he was asked to sign up for training, he said.
Before receiving the badge, McGuire underwent a grueling seven-month training process.
McGuire started with a customary two-week trial training period, spending each day at Arlington from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m., memorizing history of the Tomb, the Army and Arlington, perfecting the guard-change procedure and learning to keep his uniform and equipment in pristine condition.
At the end of each day, McGuire spent several more hours at home, shining his shoes until they were ready to pass inspection. “It would take hours upon hours to get them right,” he said.
“He has worked very hard for this. I’ve seen him stay up long nights and dedicate almost everything,” McGuire’s wife, Miranda, said in a military news statement.
After finishing that two weeks of training, McGuire went on to complete more than six months of intensive training before being awarded the Tomb Guard badge in August.
Many Tomb Guards require up to nine months of training. Many applicants decided along the way to throw in the towel, McGuire said.
“I wanted that honor. I wanted to better myself,” McGuire said. The Tomb, he said, allows people to “go and show our pride and honor as Americans.”
Inscribed on the back of the Tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”