You won’t see the soldiers of the Old Guard on Monday night, but you’ll hear them if you’re anywhere near the Mall.
As the National Symphony Orchestra builds to crescendo during the playing of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” at the close of the annual Capitol Fourth concert, Sgt. Aaron Ratigan and Pvt. 1st Class Micah Holmes will give the signal to their comrades standing ready at the Capitol Reflecting Pool to fire the cannons that produce the thundering booms July Fourth revelers have come to recognize as part of the soundtrack to the holiday celebration.
“There’s always screams from about half the audience on the first shot,” Sgt. Ratigan said.
The broad mission of the Old Guard, or the 3rd U.S. Infantry Salute Guns Platoon, is to “render honors” to a range of dignitaries and leaders, Sgt. Ratigan said. Other duties include saluting fallen soldiers at funerals and, in tonight’s case, celebrating the birth of a nation.
According to Capt. Thomas Gearhart, the cannon salute goes back centuries when warships would arrive at a foreign port and discharge their ammunition and gun powder as “a show to the host nation that we are friendly and here on good terms.”
Today, the salute comes from two or three World War II-era polished, black cannons. The platoon has eight of the roughly 3-ton guns, which fire 75 mm blank shells with 1.5 pounds of powder.
The platoon, composed of roughly 40 soldiers, has been around since 1956 and continues to maintain a mysterious existence, even among fellow soldiers in the Army.
“It’s one of the units where you see it, but don’t who they are,” said Capt. Gearhart, who just took over the platoon.
Becoming a member of the Old Guard is a very selective process, Sgt. Ratigan said, because soldiers need to be above average in general appearance, physical fitness, aptitude and intelligence.
The 23-year-old Sgt. Ratigan, an Indiana native, was recruited and joined the battery in September 2008.
Pvt. Holmes, 27, is serving his first year in the Old Guard. He knew about the unit because he grew up in Northern Virginia and wanted to join in part because it is based nearby at Fort Myer in Arlington.
Old Guard soldiers must first go through a three-week training course in which they learn such skills as rifle maneuvers, ceremony composure and marching.
It takes a total five people to oversee the cannon salute and a two-person team at each cannon to ensure they fire. All of the soldiers are required to wear earplugs.
Though the system includes redundancies and double-checks, equipment occasionally fails, which is why having a backup cannon is so important, Sgt. Ratigan said.
Pvt. Holmes said most families who attend the military funerals say the ceremony makes them feel as if their loved ones got “the honor they deserve.”