“Soldiers never die until they are forgotten. The Tomb Guard never forgets.”
That is the message on the Society of Honor Guard website, tombguard.org, and one that Gavin McIlvenna carries in his heart.
He is a former tomb guard and invites community members to learn more Sunday about his service at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997.
He said the program at 2 p.m. May 18 at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1805 Minnesota Ave., focuses on the 100th anniversary of World War I and the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“The tomb recognizes soldiers who have fallen and has given their grieving parents a place to go to remember them,” he said. “I want to focus on the WW I soldiers and talk a little bit about the sentinels themselves.”
McIlvenna, 43, was a staff sergeant with the “Old Guard,” the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, when he stood watch as Guard Number 457 over the tomb in the Memorial Amphitheatre almost 20 years ago. That elite group of men and women believe they hold a sacred duty: ensuring that fallen warriors lie undisturbed in the hallow ground of the Virginia cemetery.
Now an Oregon State Police Trooper with the Dalles unit, McIlvenna retired in 2012 from 23 years with the Oregon National Guard.
Part of his exacting duty as a sentinel was to know the history of the cemetery and biographic information about the 210 most notable people buried there. He is looking forward to sharing some of those facts with area residents.
“I am also going to be more than happy to answer any questions that someone might have,” he said. “It just seemed appropriate to do this for the 100th anniversary observance of World War I and to help people focus on Memorial Day (May 26), when we have the opportunity to honor America’s war dead.”
The century mark for the start of World War I will be July 28, although the U.S. did not enter the conflict until April 1917. By the time the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, the U.S. had lost 116,708 troops and 204,002 had been wounded.
Military guards have held vigil over the white marble sarcophagus placed above the grave of the Unknown from World War I since 1926. The duty fell to the Old Guard in 1948.
Inscribed on the tomb is: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
To the west of the sarcophagus are crypts of Unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs that sit flush with the plaza.
In the dead of night, even in the bitter cold of winter or through torrential downpours, McIlvenna said the sentinels salute the Unknowns as they take their place on the black matted pathway in front of the tomb.
“It doesn’t matter what the weather is, you still perform to standard and perfection is the standard,” he said in a 2012 interview.
“When it’s howling and blowing and nobody’s there and you are standing tall in front of the Unknowns, it can be just overwhelming.”
Some mistakes by sentinels are unforgiveable and cause for immediate dismissal. If a soldier on the ceremonial black mat, which is 63 feet long and a little more than 2 feet wide, drops his rifle, his gear will be packed and waiting for his departure at the end of his walk. McIlvenna said even minor fumbles are hardly tolerated, even in the dead of night when no one but the relief commander is there to see them.
Soldiers relieved of tomb guard duty cannot return and are sent back to regular military life.