- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

Sgt. Jeffrey Hojnacke, in his dress uniform, walks 21 steps along the dark mat, clicks his heels, turns and pauses facing the Tomb of the Unknowns.
He counts to 21 symbolizing the 21-gun salute, the military's highest honor.
The rifle changes shoulders and it begins all over again.
This is a routine the 24-year-old Old Guard sentinel knows well. He performed it 1,500 times in five years, the longest run on this duty ever. And yesterday, he did it for the last time.
He is retiring from the military and returning to civilian life to his wife and baby daughter and to college.
"It is the greatest job anyone could ever have," Sgt. Hojnacke said. "But I have been doing it so long. It's time to move on and do something else."
In the military, one of the most elite units is the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry, better known as the Old Guard. In that unit, one of the most prestigious duties is as a sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. There, sentinels guard the tomb 24 hours a day, protecting it from desecration and honoring those who died for their country. It's a duty full of honor, ceremony and monotony.
It involves walking the 21 steps back and forth for an hour, moving the rifle from one shoulder to the other and facing the tomb until the next changing of the guard.
It's a lonely duty, except for the tourists that come to watch and snap photos.
What most don't realize is the work that goes into the routine.
The uniform must be perfect, the movements crisp, the click of the heels loud. The steps must be gliding and precise.
It takes more than six months of intense training to perfect the performance a dedication beyond most.
To be eligible for the duty, a soldier must be in excellent physical condition, have a perfect military record and stand between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches. The soldier must also undergo an interview and a two-week tryout.
All sentinels-in-training learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery, the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans, the guard-change ceremony and the rifle routine that takes place during the change.
They spend much of their 24-hour duty polishing shoes and pressing uniforms.
Only the best make it and earn the Tomb Guard Badge, one of the Army's highest honors. The badge can be worn on their uniforms for the rest of their military careers.
Sgt. Hojnacke, from Pleasanthill, Ore., joined the military at 17 and began walking the tomb in May 1996. He said he joined the guard because it "represented the best of the best."
"When I was new in the regiment, they were looked upon as elite. It was something I wanted to try, so I went for it."
He said it was a challenge, making it through training, getting the uniform and demeanor just right and maintaining the needed concentration during the shift and the ceremony.
"It's tough," he said. "Sometimes your mind wanders to your wife, what you are doing the next day, and you realize you have counted to 23. You really have to give this your all."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide