As we approach Memorial Day I was inspired by a recent suggestion to write a personal story relating to an upcoming event and I am hoping that this becomes one of three articles that I intend to write before the end of this week.
Many people who even know me fairly well may not know that from February 1986 until February 1990 I was a proud member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard"
The Old Guard is the oldest and the smallest active duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army and is tasked as the Army's ceremonial unit and official escort to the President. They are also (at least when I was in it) responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns and all Army funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and various off-post cemeteries. The barracks occupied by The Old Guard at Ft. Myer, Virginia were also used to house George Washington's troops.
Being a soldier in the Old Guard was like being a soldier nowhere else. You were constantly expected to have a perfect, and I mean perfect, uniform whether you were on a parade field, conducting a military funeral or simply walking from one place to another in conducting regular business. It literally took three months of additional intensive training once you were assigned to the unit simply to be able to put your uniform together to the Old Guard standards. We had our own dry cleaning presses in each of the barracks and I personally had to have my hair cut twice a week in order to keep it to standard and often had to shave twice a day especially if we had a function later in the afternoon.
We also had to be proficient as combat soldiers. There were times when we were out in the field conducting combat training and had to be flown in at the last minute for a funeral or presidential arrival. One time I remember participating in winter survival training with Special Forces in West Virginia and in a split second we had Blackhawk helicopters pick us up because a Four Star General passed way and we were back at Ft. Myer within an hour showering (you get kinda funky living out in the mountains of West Virginia), getting our hair cut, preparing our uniforms and then conducting a funeral at Arlington.
It might sound like I am complaining and probably was at the time (it's not training if there's no complaining) but there wasn't one of us who wasn't proud and honored to serve in the way that we did. But enough with the mushy stuff the purpose of the article was to show how very human and less than perfect these young guys are and how the craziest things happened and more than likely continue to happen.
There are too many stories to mention in one simple blog post like the one about how a Chevy Suburban full of Secret Service Agents screamed up to us as we were waiting to conduct a funeral and asked us which way the President went and almost on cue all six of the guys in my squad pointed in six different directions (they didn't think we were very funny) or how we watched in horror when six members of a burial team with an outstretched flag dropped into a six foot grave when the platform they were standing on collapsed. It was exactly how you see it in a cartoon when a cartoon character falls but their hat seems to float in mid air for a second before it follows suit. Luckily nothing was hurt but pride and the soldiers were assisted out of the hole and the funeral continued.
I am simply going to go with the two stories that seem to have stuck with me over the years and they both seem to involve members of the animal kingdom. I don't mean to poke fun at our troops (myself included) but rather to show their human side and their dedication to duty and perseverance regardless of the circumstances.
The first story centers around one of God's lowliest creatures, the dreaded cicada! I can't recall the exact year but Washington D.C. was literally swarming with cicadas and more than likely it was one of those special 17 year cicada deals.
Arlington National Cemetery backs up to and has an entrance leading directly from the post chapel at Ft. Myer into the cemetery. The companies of The Old Guard have rotating responsibilities and it was Delta Company's week to be primary funeral company. Our squad had been given our funeral responsibilities for the day (called a job sheet) and we had just been transported by bus from our barracks to the grave site location. (A little Old Guard trivia: while wearing dress blues members of the Old Guard do not sit down in the bus while wearing their uniform jacket "blouse" or uniform pants because of the potential for wrinkles. They basically "bus surf" in shorts and dress just before getting off the bus) We had just gotten off the bus and there were literally thousands upon thousands of cicadas flying around, clinging to trees, crawling on the ground, making a deafening buzzing sound and all those things that cicadas generally do.
One member of our squad, Specialist Tillery, was a country boy from Oklahoma and loved the cicadas! Another member of our squad was Specialist Cupp and he literally despised everything about them. He technically was not "afraid" of them but wanted nothing to do with them. Of course in the military you never want to show any kind of weakness because while your buddy may take a bullet for you, you can also count on him to capitalize on any exposed weaknesses (Don' ask I think its a guy thing)
So, without another word, Tillery holds out his finger, makes some sort of strange singing/whistling noise and within two seconds a cicada lands on his finger as if it were trained! Cupp sees this and is completely disgusted beyond words and threatens Tillery with everything from court martial to execution if he comes anywhere near him with that bug!
Luckily it was close to the time of the funeral and the Tom Foolery didn't have time to escalate. One thing I can say is that when it came time for business the guys in the Old Guard were very serious and professional in spite of themselves.
The funeral was going as planned and we were at the stage where we had set the casket down over the grave site, picked up the flag that was draped over the casket and held it outstretched as the clergy spoke.
It was then that we truly were exposed to one aspect of a cicada's personality that we hadn't been aware of. Cicada's love shiny things! Now lets take thousands of flying insects who love shiny things and exposed them to six unsuspecting young men who just spent an hour shining every piece of metal on their spiffy military uniforms! Yep!
On the collars of our uniform jackets are two metal disks that we shine with Brasso to the point that when photos are taken they create a "star pattern" in the image. This was the main target for thousands of buzzing Kamikazes.
You could hear them coming, the buzzing coming closer and closer with the inevitable "smack" as they hit you in the collar and you tried with every ounce of your being to not duck or dodge and interrupt the funeral. Luckily they hit and generally bounced off without incident. That was until they smelled the fear from Specialist Cupp.
I was standing directly across from Cupp and he was starting to sweat profusely. I could see the fear in his eyes as the buzzing noise came closer and closer. His ugly buzzing enemy had found is mark with a distinct "clink" as it landed on his collar only this one didn't bounce off. Oh no, this one seemed intent on making Cupp's life miserable. Keep in mind that as you are holding this flag with two hands you have no way to brush this insect off without directing attention away from the funeral and on yourself so he was trapped!
The cicada was slowly making its way up Cupp's jacket and was scaling his neck enroute to his left ear. I was biting my lip so that I wasn't tempted to crack a smile or snicker and the cicada stopped at Cupp's ear. What happened next was beyond words! I am sure everyone is familiar with the distinct and sometimes deafening buzz that a cicada makes but the noise that came out of this cicada and directly into Cupp's ear was bordering on the romantic. This cicada let out this little high pitched sound into Cupp's ear that was actually quite sweet and relaxing to everyone except Cupp of course.
I could now taste blood I was biting my lip so hard. The firing party had fired three volleys and it was time for us to fold the flag. This gave Cupp the opportunity to disguise his movement and he brushed the cicada off his ear and unfortunately onto the flag!
The cicada was folded into the perfect triangle of red white and blue and only our team noticed when Cupp gave the completed flag an extra firm squeeze before presenting it to the family who were none the wiser. Ahh... it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all!
Tomorrow's Old Guard Memorial Day blooper is one I like to call the Arabian Horse Debacle. Till then.
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