Guarding Honor

Review: 'Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery' by Tom Cotton

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Shortly after a Boeing 757 rammed into the western side of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment sprang into action. The so-called Old Guard of the Army, stationed just across the highway in Arlington National Cemetery, was the most readily available outfit to aid those affected in the attack—and perhaps the most qualified.

For the Old Guard is in the business of death. Not of dealing death, as other branches of the armed forces are, but of receiving it: arranging funerals for the fallen and making sure that every United States soldier is buried with dignity. And in the days after 9/11, the Old Guard plunged into the debris at the Pentagon, on a hunt for human remains, framed pictures, personalized coffee mugs, and anything else that might help them identify the dead.

After about a week, members of the regiment could not cleanse the stench of decay from their bodies. "Can't you do something when my husband comes off of a shift?" some of the soldiers' wives asked their commander, Col. Jim Laufenburg. "He smells like death." So Laufenburg devised a solution: "Before you go home, you will bag up all your uniforms, you'll take it to the local dry cleaner who will have it laundered for you and you will take a shower," he told his men. They did this for about a month. Once their work was done at the Pentagon, the Old Guard helped retire the American flag that had once flown above the building and then returned to its regular—but ever more frequent—business of conducting funerals in Arlington.

The advent of the War on Terror was a pivotal moment for the Old Guard, and it brought the ceremonial regiment into the national spotlight. Now, Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) has collected its history in his first book, Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery. Cotton served in the outfit from 2007 to 2008, and he recounts his personal experiences along with interviews and historical research to tell the story of the United States Army's oldest active regiment.

Founded in 1784, the Old Guard was created by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation to protect the United States after the Revolutionary War. They served in many foreign and domestic conflicts throughout the nation's early history and gained their nickname in the Mexican War, during the Army's triumphant 1847 entrance into Mexico City after besieging the city. The 3rd Infantry had fought particularly well in the siege, and Gen. Winfield Scott granted them the privilege of leading the victory parade. As they entered the city's main plaza, Scott instructed the rest of his troops, "Gentlemen, take off your hats to the Old Guard of the Army." The name stuck.

The Old Guard spent much of the next 100 years of its existence deployed to various parts of the American frontier and then abroad in both World Wars. Following the close of World War II, it was deactivated—only to be revitalized in 1948 to serve as the official guardians of Arlington National Cemetery. Since then, the Old Guard's primary duty has been the performance of funerals.

Recently, on Fox News's Fox & Friends recalling a funeral for 12 American soldiers who died in a 2007 helicopter crash, Cotton said the Old Guard took special measures to practice days beforehand: "We wanted to make sure that for every one of those families they got that last perfect moment of honor." Other soldiers agreed; these funerals show families the value of their relatives' sacrifice. "When you see the family around you, you know exactly what you're doing for that family," Sgt. Brian Harrison told Cotton. And for the members of the Old Guard, Cotton says, these funerals are a matter of "honor for our fallen and their families" where they give their utmost to "the small things, which in combat can be the line between life and death—and in Arlington, the line between honor and failure."

The elite members of the Old Guard stand watch in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—the duty for which the regiment is best known. Although Cotton never served in this capacity, he provides testimony from those who did. Like everything in the Old Guard's ken, standing watch over the Unknown Soldier is a task that must be performed with great reverence, no matter the circumstances. Sometimes, that means battling the elements in strange ways: "I had a big bug go up my nose, crawl up my nasal cavity, and down into my mouth," one soldier recalled to Cotton. "I chewed him up and swallowed him because I didn't want to open my mouth and break composure. I just had a little snack."

Sacred Duty is not a political book, and it is more than just a military history. This is Cotton's tribute to his regiment and all the American dead it honors. In the book's final pages, Cotton recalls an anecdote from Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey about the time he drove a foreign dignitary through Arlington Cemetery: "I was explaining what the Old Guard does, and he was looking out the window at all those headstones," Dailey told Cotton. "After a long pause, still looking that the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.'"