Public Media Arts Hub

For Arlington's Old Guard, the mission is to honor, and the standard is perfection


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Also in honor of this Memorial Day, Judy Woodruff introduces us to one of the country's oldest and most elite army units.

Judy Woodruff: Arlington National Cemetery is widely known as the final resting place for men and women who served in our nation's military. But less is known about the Old Guard.

That is the Army's oldest active-duty regiment, primarily tasked with performing funerals there for our country's fallen heroes.

Senator Tom Cotton, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote about the Old Guard and his experience serving with that elite unit in his new book, "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery."

And Senator Cotton joins me now.

Welcome to the "NewsHour."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.: Thank you, Judy.

Judy Woodruff: A lot of people know you as the senator, as we said, from Arkansas. You're known to be a committed conservative.

But this is a book about the work you did as a member of the military. You served for 16 months. Tell us about the Old Guard and tell us why you wanted to write about them.

Sen. Tom Cotton: "Sacred Duty" is the story of the Old Guard.

I play a very small part in that story. I was there for 16 months in 2007-2008. But the Old Guard is literally the Old Guard of the Army. It was stood up in 1784. And for 160 years, it fought our nation's major conflicts. But for the last 71 years, it's been the Army's official ceremonial unit at Arlington National Cemetery.

I knew when I served there that it was a special place. It was a genuine honor for me to perform those missions in Arlington.

But once I got into Congress, I really appreciated just what a special place Arlington has in the hearts of our fellow citizens. Arkansans come to visit me all the time in Washington. And they usually see the sights, and I ask them their favorite stop was.

And they almost always say Arlington National Cemetery. And I think so many Americans have that feeling as well. And no one's ever told the story of the Old Guard.

Judy Woodruff: Tell us about the work that they do. How is it different from what other service members do?

Sen. Tom Cotton: Most Army regiments are training for their mission, which is performed overseas, defending our country, or they are already overseas performing that mission.

But the Old Guard is performing its core mission, military honor funerals and ceremonies, every single day in Arlington National Cemetery and in the capital region. And it's a very demanding operational tempo. Soldiers take two to three months before they're even trained and certified to perform that mission, because everything the Old Guard does lives up to a single, simple standard, perfection, because there are no do-overs in Arlington National Cemetery.

Judy Woodruff: Meaning you do a funeral...


Sen. Tom Cotton: So, we performed, when I was there and still today, up to 20 or 30 funerals a day. That means an individual soldier or his team could do six or seven funerals in a day.

But every funeral is unique, because, for the family, that's a once-in-a-lifetime moment. And it's a lifetime in the making. And we took that into the cemetery, focusing on how the family saw those funerals. And we wanted to make sure that everything we did was absolutely perfect, so they would not have anything that marred their memory of laying their loved one to rest, and so that they could go through the grieving process while we paid the honors.

Judy Woodruff: How do you make it perfect? Talk about some of the things that each member of the Old Guard has to do and how to get right over and over again.

Sen. Tom Cotton: Yes.

So, just take the uniforms. I mean, every Old Guard company has large industrial presses in its barracks, just like you might see at a dry cleaning store. And it takes hours and hours and hours to get those perfect razor-sharp creases into the sleeves of your jacket or into the creases of your pants.

It can take, like I say, two to three months to learn the individual skills of how to march wearing steel-plated shoes, or the collective skills of how a casket team folds a flag into a perfect triangle on a minute-and-55-second schedule exactly, or how a seven-man firing party makes seven rifles sound like one during that three-volley salute.

Judy Woodruff: And you open describing how precise it is, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, when you're placing the flag, the small American flag at each grave.

Sen. Tom Cotton: So, last Thursday was Flags In, in Arlington National Cemetery, a tradition that goes back now into its eighth decade.

Old Guard soldiers take off their ceremonial blue uniforms as the last funerals of the day wind down, put on their combat fatigues, and march into the cemetery carrying between them 245,000 American flags, and they put a flag in front of every grave.

And the standard is very precise, vertical and perpendicular to the headstone. And the way you size it out is, you use your foot. So you put your toe to the headstone, you plant the flag at the heel. That means only one soldier can do each row, because you can't have my size 14 feet matched to another soldier's size 8 feet, because everything, again, is designed to achieve that standard of perfection.

So over these last four days, as thousands of Americans have visited Arlington National Cemetery, they see those flags perfectly aligned. And they know that, in the last four days, every single person who's laid the rest in Arlington has had one of today's soldiers come by and remind them that they are not forgotten.

Judy Woodruff: Why does it matter so much? Why is it so important to get it exactly right?

Sen. Tom Cotton: Yes, it's not just about honoring the fallen and their families. It's also about sending the message to today's Americans that we don't forget our warriors, and that we will treat all of today's soldiers in the exact same fashion.

One story I tell in the book comes from Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He was escorting a foreign military leader through Arlington. And he was telling him a little bit about the Old Guard and what they do in Arlington.

And he said that foreign military leader, without turning away from the window, looking at all those headstones, said: "Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You treat your dead better than we treat our living."

Judy Woodruff: And how are they chosen? How do the Army services choose these individuals?

Sen. Tom Cotton: Well, the Old Guard performs a very sensitive and very prominent mission.

It's the face of the Army to the family and the cemetery. It's the face of the Army to the world. So they recruit only the top-notch soldiers. It's a volunteer regiment. Many of the officers and noncommissioned officers have to apply, because they have very strict height and weight standards, physical fitness standards.

It gets some of the smartest soldiers in the Army, according to the Army's general intelligence test, no legal blemishes in your background, or no character issues as well, because they know that the Old Guard soldier is going to have to operate in a very decentralized fashion, without much oversight from senior leaders, often performing very sensitive missions.

Judy Woodruff: And you write about how they can't show any emotion. They're standing virtually all day long.

But, inside, that has to be hard. I mean, funeral after funeral?

Sen. Tom Cotton: Yes.

So we're trying to maintain ceremonial composure, whether it's at a ceremony for, say, a retiring general officer, or at a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. And that's because our job is not to grieve. Our job is to honor.

That doesn't mean we don't grieve the loss of our fallen comrades, but it's -- our primary job is to honor him or her and honor their families. Some of those families are grieving in a very clear and manifest way. I mean, some of them lost their loved one just a couple of weeks earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And when you're standing near that grave, and you see a mother and a father who have lost a child, and a widow or widower, and young children who may not understand what is going on, that's an image you can't forget. But it's also something that you have to put aside in the moment, so you can focus on your role, which is honoring that fallen hero.

Judy Woodruff: How does it strike you that you are one of the few current members of Congress who've served in the military, and I believe the only one who's performed this duty?

Sen. Tom Cotton: Well, we're at something of a historic low point in the Congress, in part because our nation moved to an all-volunteer force about 40 years ago.

I do think that, as my generation of veterans ages and gets into our 40s and 50s in the coming years, we will see more in Congress, because the same kind of respect and reverence you see for our fallen heroes in Arlington, I think, you also see for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines all around the country who are serving.

And I think that's a good thing. That doesn't mean we all have the same political views. Far from it. But I do think it's a good thing that we will be seeing more veterans in Congress in the years ahead.

Judy Woodruff: Senator Tom Cotton.

The book is "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery."

Thank you.

Sen. Tom Cotton: Thank you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.