Face of Defense: ‘Old Guard’ Sentinel Serves Last Watch
By Army Staff Sgt. Megan Garcia
3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment
ARLINGTON, Va. , Sep. 6, 2012 For the past four Christmases, Army Sgt. John Baker left his wife and son to spend the holiday with three strangers whose names he did not even know.
Army Sgt. John Baker places a rose at one of the four crypts at the Tomb of the Unknowns during his last walk ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Aug. 31, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Megan Garcia
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Baker is a tomb sentinel, a small group of soldiers entrusted to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery here. Sharing his holidays with the unknowns is a small sacrifice. “I owe them perfection,” Baker said. “They not only gave up their lives for this country, but they gave up their identities as well. Their stories are an open-ended book that may never be closed.”
The tomb holds unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. During the late 1990’s, previously unavailable DNA testing determined that the unidentified remains from the Vietnam War were those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. The remains were returned to his family in St. Louis, Mo. for burial.
The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather conditions. On Aug. 31, after taking his last walk, Baker ended his chapter in the unknowns’ story.
Reflecting on his first experience at the tomb, Baker said he never thought he would see the day when he would become a tomb sentinel. “When I was 5 years old, I remember looking up at a tomb guard walking with a rifle, standing at 6-foot-4, and I was just in awe,” Baker said. “I didn’t think that I could do it.”
However, years later, his Army recruiter thought differently. “My recruiter was actually a tomb guard who had left the tomb in 2007,” Baker said. “He talked me into going down to the tomb and set up everything for me along the way.”
Five months later, Baker arrived to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard.”
The Army’s premier ceremonial unit regularly conducts events to honor fallen service members. A select group of the unit’s soldiers guards the tomb. They undergo a rigorous training process that instills the honor, discipline and seriousness necessary to carry out the solemn mission. Baker admitted going into the training that he did not have the right mindset. “It was a little rough at first,” he said. “I was a 19-year-old kid. I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to have my off time, and I didn’t want to put in the amount of dedication that was necessary.”
Two months into his duty he realized the true honor of being a tomb guard. “It was pouring down rain and I was walking, and there was nobody out there except one old woman,” he said. “She was just looking at me and she was crying, and whenever I would walk past her she would just say, ‘Thank you.’
“I just kept thinking one of them could be her husband that she never saw come home from World War II,” he continued. “That’s when what I did really sunk in.”
Baker has trouble explaining the exact feeling that came over him from that moment and others like it. “It’s hard to put into words when you see those people who really appreciate what we do,” he said. “When a guard changer comes out and requests that the audience stand, I’ve seen veterans fighting to get out of their wheelchairs to pay their respect to the unknowns. That’s what has really drove it home for me.”
The sanctity of his service reshaped Baker’s mentality. “I have so much pride in my country,” he said. “I’ve done something that not a lot of people will do, and I hope I’ve served honorably.”
A long way from the 19-year-old who started this journey, Baker stood tall on the last day of his duty as a tomb sentinel. After walking his final guard shift, Baker relinquished his weapon and prepared to render his final respects to the unknowns.
Walking toward the tomb, Baker stopped to present his ceremonial white gloves to his mother and a rose to his wife and son. He placed a single red rose at the foot of each crypt and rendered one final salute. With his mother, wife and son by his side, Baker left the tomb plaza for the last time. “It’s bittersweet, but I know I’m leaving the tomb in good hands,” said Baker.
Those hands are the legacy of tomb sentinels who Baker said he has watched grow during his time at Arlington. He will miss this special brotherhood, but most importantly, he will never forget the bond he shared with the unknowns. “It’s a feeling that you can’t put into words,” he said. “I’ve asked other tomb sentinels, past and present, and they can’t explain it either. You just know it’s there. I feel like I will always have to defend them.”
Baker, who served at the Tomb of the Unknowns for four and a half years, will report to Fort Stewart, Ga., for his next Army assignment.