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Remembering the fallen: ASU alum, student veteran reflect on assignments at Arlington National Cemetery

Three soldiers guarding a tomb

Jeff Dickerson (middle) during a 2017 Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was stationed as a sentinel. Photo courtesy the Old Guard, Army

May 23, 2024

As Memorial Day approaches, millions of Americans will reflect on fallen service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Our nation’s most sacred shrine of remembrance is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

While Tempe is some 2,300 miles from this iconic landmark near the nation’s capital, an Arizona State University alumnus and a student veteran have a personal connection to the symbolic grave and hallowed ground that serves as the final resting place for nearly 400,000 service members dating back to the Civil War.  

They say they will observe Memorial Day, which falls on May 27 this year, with great reverence and humility.

Jeff Dickerson still gets emotional when speaking about his three-year assignment in the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (known as the “Old Guard”), who have served since 1784. One of their highest honors is guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — considered of the most venerable missions in the military.

Sentinels were permanently posted at the tomb in 1926, after tourists co-opted the grave as a picnic area. Over the decades, the site and the ceremonial Changing of the Guard has become an international tourist attraction while being guarded 24 hours a day since 1937.

“Everything we did revolved around keeping soldiers’ memories alive through remembrance,” said Dickerson, who graduated from ASU this month with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary arts and sciences from New College. “Our biggest saying was, ‘Soldiers never die until they’re forgotten. Tomb guards never forget.’”

Dickerson said when he enlisted in the Army in 2015, he wanted to join the infantry and be “the guy on the field.”

“When you enlist as a young soldier, you’re motivated, you’re patriotic,” Dickerson said. “I thought I was going to go to a line unit and be an infantry man. And if conflict arose, I was gonna be the one to answer the call. When I found out the Old Guard was a non-deployable unit, it didn’t sit very well with me.”

But he had a change of heart after he joined the unit.

Tomb Guards are handpicked and rigorously trained for up to a year at Fort Myer Army Base. They must give a two-year commitment to guard the tomb, be in excellent condition with a proportionate weight, height and build.

Guards must also undergo an extensive interview and a two-week trial, which includes memorizing seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. They must be able to recite the information verbatim before they earn a “walk.”

Dickerson worked a nine-day schedule, where for the first six he was 27 hours on and 21 hours off. This was followed by four days off and included training on the ninth day before restarting the nine-day schedule. He said he got through those long shifts with endless cups of coffee and walking the grounds. He said winters were harsh, but summers were brutal.

“It gets hot, and people get dehydrated, and you sweat like crazy because those uniforms are made out of 100% wool,” Dickerson said. “We typically do 30-minute shifts to stay cool and hydrated.”

Regardless of the demands, Dickerson said guarding the tomb was humbling and filled him with a great sense of pride.

“Even though I was never deployed, I felt as if I was doing the next best thing that I possibly could, and that was honoring the ones that went before me and never made it back,” Dickerson said. “With these unknowns, they’ve lost everything — their lives, their families, their identities. They have generations of family members who don’t know what happened to their loved one. I think about them and their sacrifice every day.”

Soldier planting flags
Savino Anguiano plants flags at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Fraser, United States Army.

ASU student and Army veteran Savino Anguiano said he also thinks a lot about his service at Arlington National Cemetery from 2021 to 2023 and how it has impacted his life.

“It’s humbling because every day I’d see those headstones, experience eight to 12 funeral services a day or I might hear those 21 gun salutes off in the distance,” said Anguiano, who is a project manager major in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “I was there when Marines from the Kabul Airport attacks were buried, and I saw the impact their deaths had on their families. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Anguiano started out in the military as a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 88M Motor Transport Operator, which is part of a unit in the Army’s Old Guard. He was a driver.

He admitted his initial motive for joining the Old Guard wasn’t very patriotic.

“I saw a YouTube video for the 88M MOS and saw where they transported the Color Guard to a lot of sporting events like the Baltimore Ravens (football) and the Washington Nationals (baseball), and we got a free ticket to every game,” Anguiano said. “I also worked President Biden’s inauguration and a few White House missions, which was exciting.” 

But when Anguiano was assigned to Arlington National Cemetery, his mission became clearer, and his service became more meaningful.

“When you play a crucial role in ensuring a service member is laid to rest in the most honorable and perfect way possible, you also cannot forget the impact this has had, and the sacrifices Gold Star Family members have made,” Anguiano said. “You’re with them on the worst day of their lives. But you’re also there to support them and let them know they’re not alone and you’re there in a supportive role. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is what I had to do.”

That became evident for the two years he was at Arlington on Memorial Day. That’s when he and other members of his unit spent up to eight hours planting flags in front of tombstones in preparation for the day of remembrance.

“That might sound small to the public, but the impact it has on a family is significant,” Anguiano said. “They know that year in, year out, their loved one’s service to this country has not been forgotten.”

Shawn Banzhaf, executive director of ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center, encourages the public to take a pause on the Monday holiday and remember the men and women who gave their lives defending this country.

“Having presented the flag to over 50 military family members personally, I know the impact of remembrance,” Banzhaf said. “I encourage everyone to take some time out of their day this Memorial Day and simply hold a moment of silence to remember the sacrifice of those like Pat Tillman who gave up everything for the cause of freedom.”

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