Arizonans in ‘Old Guard' say honoring the fallen is the greatest service
WASHINGTON -- Former Phoenix residents Tyler O'Connor and Enrique Garcia took different paths to the Army.
O'Connor knew at age 7 that he wanted to be a soldier and spent four years in Army ROTC at Arizona State University to earn a commission in the infantry. Garcia decided much later to enlist, about a year after high school. O'Connor wound up serving in Afghanistan, Garcia was deployed twice to Iraq.
But their paths converged in Alpha Company of the Army's 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, where both say they are now engaged in the highest duty a soldier can perform - rendering honors for fallen veterans and heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.
"There is no greater honor," 1st Lt. O'Connor said.
The unit is "the face of the Army," marching in parades, performing in ceremonial functions in Washington and carrying out "memorial affairs" at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a job that takes hours of practice and training, with attention to the tiniest detail as they present the "thanks of a grateful nation" to survivors.
For Staff Sgt. Garcia, that includes such seemingly minor details as folding the flag that traditionally drapes the casket and later is presented to the family. It is just one element of the ceremony that requires hours of practice "to make sure our movements match," Garcia said.
The goal, he said, is to fold the flag into a precise triangle with one star at the apex to represent one nation, three stars in the middle for the branches of government and five stars along the bottom to signify the military branches.
"Everything has to be perfect," he said.
These exacting standards extend to everything the unit does, from marching to maintaining their uniforms, which include both modern and colonial versions, O'Connor said. Soldiers in the unit even re-dye the leather soles of their shoes before every ceremony, whether or not people will notice.
"It's important, it's part of the uniform," he said.
The regiment, also known as the Old Guard, is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army and its official ceremonial unit. Modeled after Gen. George Washington's personal guard, Alpha Company - also known as the Commander-in-Chief's Guard - "maintains ceremonial and tactical proficiency in the weaponry and tactics of the 18th century," according to its website.
The unit is present at everything from inaugurations to retirements, from performances for the public to events welcoming foreign dignitaries.
O'Connor arrived at the Old Guard in August and is still being certified to lead the platoon that escorts the caisson into Arlington National Cemetery for burials.
He said the months-long certification process involves rigorous attention to detail of uniforms, movements and drill commands, but it begins with a test that requires soldiers to stand motionless at attention - legs together, arms straight at the side, chest out and head up - for 70 minutes.
"That is ceremonial composure, do not move for 70 minutes," he said.
All of this necessary in a unit that sees itself as the face of the Army. But O'Connor said most people don't realize the soldiers of the Old Guard are responsible for maintaining their proficiency as infantry soldiers as well.
"By trade, these are infantrymen," he said. "So in addition to the ceremonial stuff and memorial affairs … we also do conduct marksmanship training and keeping up with the infantry skills."
A self-proclaimed "adrenaline junky," O'Connor said he was motivated to join the Army in part by a desire for adventure and in part by patriotism.
After serving in Afghanistan and having what he called the best experience of his career repelling a three-pronged enemy attack on a remote Army observation post, it was hard for him to leave his former unit for the Old Guard. But he said the memorial affairs mission swayed him.
"That was really important to me," O'Connor said. "Giving those guys the honor and dignity they deserve for their final resting place."
Garcia said he came to the Old Guard more than two years ago because he saw it as a rare opportunity. He is now preparing to leave the unit for his next assignment, where he hopes to have a position training younger soldiers and making the Army better.
He joined the Army because he wanted a job where he could constantly strive to be his best, he said, referencing the old recruiting slogan, "Be all you can be."
"It lived up to its motto," Garcia said.