Memorial Day (observed) Book Review: The Old Guard

Cotton, Tom. Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery. (Kindle e-book).

When military history buffs think of a unit called the Old Guard, we tend to think of Napoleon’s famous reserve group. It is from that French regiment that the US Army’s 3rd Infantry takes its nickname – the Old Guard. They are charged with serving at official functions of honor, preserving the history and honor of the Army and the US, and serving at Arlington National Cemetery. Most people probably assume that their jobs center on funerals and on guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As Tom Cotton, a veteran of the unit, shows, there is a lot more.

The book starts at Dover AFB, then bounces around through history. It seems to drag. Fear not, the pace of the book is sort of a spiral, tightening in closer and closer to end with the Tomb Sentinels. Tom Cotton, now a US Senator, served in the Old Guard between tours with the 101st Airborne. He comes back as a civilian, looking at the 3rd Infantry from inside and outside.

He gives a detailed battle history of the unit, the ins and outs and re-creations as the size of the Army expanded in wartime and shrank during peace. Then he looks at the story of Arlington itself, followed by the funeral services and all the training and labor that goes into each service. It is a service of love, in (almost) all weathers, done perfectly each time. “For the family, this is their only funeral” Cotton reminds the reader. For the soldiers, it is a way to show the fallen that their country has not forgotten them.

What most people probably don’t know is that the Old Guard also includes reenactments, done as part of a walk-through history of the Army and the nation, a fife and drum corps, and ceremonial troops who serve at state occasions and functions. In some ways those are actually the most visible parts of the Old Guard, at least for visitors and dignitaries in Washington DC. The 3rd Infantry is also a combat unit, and the men train. They were at the Pentagon on 9/11 and after, a duty Cotton says was harder emotionally and harder on their families than the “usual” duties.

The book ends with the Tomb Sentinels. Their training is as strict as that for the funeral processions and other duties, and the men (and a very few women) who make the cut are the elite of the elite in some ways. There is a ninety percent wash-out rate to be a Tomb Sentinel. Cotton also includes a history of the Tomb of the Unknowns itself.

There’s a fair amount of humor in the book, mostly at the author’s expense. I can see clearly and chuckle at his attempts to “lead by example” being throttled by his senior NCO and troopers. “Sir, you’re gonna make us look bad,” hangs over the scene as the enlisted “fix and improve” Cotton’s uniform and demeanor. Yes, he was airborne. He was also a mere lieutenant, and thus not to be trusted without adult supervision. 🙂 [No, I have never heard similar stories from family members and friends. Noooo, none at all.]

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the history of the 3rd Infantry, those who wonder what goes on behind the scenes at Arlington National Cemetery, and anyone who has visited the Tomb and been moved by the honor and reverence shown. Cotton allows the men to speak for themselves, and the combined pride and humility comes through. Proud to be able to provide service, and humility at the memory of the men (and a few women) who surround them in the quiet fields.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation for this review.


5 thoughts on “Memorial Day (observed) Book Review: The Old Guard

  1. Morning all …

    The Society of the Honor Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS) maintain a homepage at: The site is being updated and it’s a little swamped today, as you would expect, so be patient. These are some really good folks carrying on the tradition. This Fall will mark the100th anniversary of the Tomb and the Society has a number of events planned. Non-Guards can also participate as Associate Members. I have for a number of years now. I was at the Tomb as a High School student back in the day, and it left a real impression on me, so when I found out there was a way to support the Guards, I was glad to participate.

  2. I was lucky enough to work with a former member of the Old Guard who was also a Tomb Sentinel. He got me in for a guided tour including the Sentinel’s spaces under the viewing stand. Impressive to put it mildly. Funny part, his wife went with us, and she knew as much as he did. When I asked, she replied, “Who do you think trained his ass for his test!” She grinned as he laughed and admitted she could have done better on the written and the ‘find the grave’ part of the test… Hats off to those folks. They are ALWAYS on as soon as they step out in public view. And yes, they are on duty 24/7/365, regardless of the weather.

    • What’s especially interesting is the “inside baseball” you see when the younger Sentinels and the Older Hands get together. They’re quiet about it, but there’s a lot of attention to the current manual of arms and the level of knowledge/professionalism. The level of devotion is pretty amazing. The last Tomb Guard reunion had a fundraising raffle and one of the lots included sections of the mat – the “strip” where Guards parade in front of the tomb. One of the winners was a young pre-teen boy who was thrilled beyond words, pointing to his future? The other was a former Guard, who simply cried as he collected his piece of the mat. He’d walked some 20+ years ago and it was as fresh as yesterday to him. Very special collection of people.

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