There are 634 living members of the Tomb Guard in the United States and they are on a mission to establish a National Salute.
Gavin McIlvenna holds Badge 457 of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard” that keeps watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TUS) at Arlington National Cemetery in Viriginia.
He resides in the gorge and is asking that area churches ring bells to help with the salute at 11 a.m. on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
He requests that bells peal 21 times at five-second intervals at any church that chooses to participate, followed by two minutes of silence.
“Everyone knows someone who has fallen in battle so we are all connected through a long chain of veterans,” said McIlvenna.
He said, in military tradition, the 21-gun salute is the highest honor given any dignitary so it is appropriate to have churches perform a variation of that tribute on behalf of veterans.
He said the first minute of silence on Wednesday will pay tribute to those who have already given their lives for their country. The second recognizes that lives will be forfeit in the future to preserve American freedom and democracy.
“This is all meant to be a reenactment of the respect shown by our nation during the establishment of the TUS at Arlington on the 11th hour, 11th day and 11th month of 1921,” said McIlvennna.
“This will really bring attention to what we want to accomplish on Veterans Day – remembering veterans.”
He stood watch in 1997 at the age of 27 and was proud to join the long line of sentinels who have kept continuous and silent vigil over the monument since 1937.
The guard are not just ceremonial, they are in place to prevent anyone from desecrating or disrespecting the final resting place of American heroes, said McIlvenna.
He said the dedication of the guard is so great that they will not step foot on the red bricks around the crypts because it is considered sacred ground. They also try to know details on 200 notable graves out of more than 200,000 on the grounds.
“It is our job to assure those who have earned eternal rest are not disturbed and we take that very seriously,” he said.
McIlvenna now holds the position of senior trooper at the Oregon State Police in The Dalles Area Command and is an Army veteran and retired sergeant major with the Oregon National Guard.
He is vice-president of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and chair of the organization’s Centennial Committee. He manages SHGTUS’s Facebook page and assists with the website.
On the home page of the site is the saying, “Soldiers never die until they are forgotten, tomb guards never forget.”
McIlvenna still lives that commitment.
He said the TUS anniversary takes place in seven years so past and present members of the guard are focused on raising public awareness about that benchmark. They also want to establish new protocol for Veterans Day that will become tradition for the next 100 years.
The remains of the first unknown were brought back from France and placed in a tomb below a white marble sarcophagus in the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington three years after World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Inscribed on the sarcophagus is: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
West of the WW I tomb are crypts for the unknowns of World War II and Korea. The remains of the Vietnam unknown were exhumed in 1998 for DNA testing that identified them as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972.
It was decided that the Vietnam crypt would remain vacant because DNA testing had made it possible to identify and return remains of the fallen to their families.
The cover of the Vietnam crypt now has the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975,” in reference to 1,268 service personnel still unaccounted for from that war.
McIlvenna said the legislation sponsored by Congressman Hamilton Fish in 1920 to create the tomb of the unknown was intended to bring all Americans together in a way that transcended the differences of politics, race or religion.
“He appealed to the moral authority of the principles for which America’s sons and daughter fought and died so that America would live,” wrote McIlvenna in an historical account of that time period.
“This singular act linked all Americans with the graves of every patriot – those who fought in the American Revolution to those who defend us now and those who will defend our homeland in the future.”
McIlvenna said in 2016, guard members will reach out to civic organizations with activities to further enhance the National Salute. The following year, he said military installations will be approached about participation.
“We’re starting out very small but this is going to get bigger,” he said.
Address for website: www.tombguard.org
Address for Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ societyofthehonorguard.