Benton Thames serves four years at Arlington Cemetery
When the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade rolls through Denham Springs December 10, you may not recognize the grand marshal. He’s not a celebrity, nor a public official or a person whose name might be readily recognized; he looks rather young to be a dignitary, and, indeed, he will turn 25 two days before the parade. His name is Benton Thames and he has quietly served for four years as a member of the special U. S. Army unit that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
More than four million people visit the cemetery annually, many paying respect and watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb which has never been officially named and stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C.
Thames attended Denham Springs High School through his sophomore year, then went to Springfield High School for his junior and senior years. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army in June 2006, took basic training and was assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia and the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as the President‘s Own or the Old Guard. Members of this select unit have to meet rigorous physical standards and qualify for a secret security clearance.
At Fort Myer, he was part of the presidential guard and had various assignments, including standing guard at state dinners and serving as part of the escort team for Queen Elisabeth of England.
“When escorting heads of state there are very strict rules you must follow like not touching them or speaking unless you are spoken to,” Thames said. “Most of what we did was more ceremonial than security detail, and although we carried weapons they were usually unloaded. It depended on the circumstances, though; sometimes, for visits of certain dignitaries, we would carry loaded M9 pistols or M16s.”
Thames fired his rifle as part of memorial ceremonies, including the 21-gun salute when President Gerald Ford’s body was placed in the Capitol rotunda following his death in 2006. He met both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
“In 2007, my squad leader, a former Tomb guard, suggested I go to Arlington and see the Tomb. I went down one Saturday and stayed there watching the guards until the cemetery closed. I was so impressed with the ritual and their dedication that I decided to try out.”
Before a soldier can try out, they are vetted to make sure they meet the height requirement of 5’10” or taller, pass certain tests and are approved by their commander. The preliminary tryout lasts three weeks, then candidates are tested to see who has the potential to endure the next phase. Once chosen, the real training begins.
Each soldier must have strong military bearing, discipline and stamina. They must be able to flawlessly perform seven different types of walks, honors and ceremonies and retain vast amounts of knowledge concerning the Tomb, Arlington National Cemetery, the United States Army and their unit. They are not allowed to talk about anything but duty; they cannot smile or make jokes. They spend long periods of time marching and standing at attention.
“It gets really hot in the summer, and you’re in a long-sleeve wool uniform, plus you’re walking on marble which radiates heat,” said Thames. “Only the most-experienced guys get assigned during the extreme heat, and no one has ever passed out. I personally found the winters to be more difficult, maybe because I’m used to Louisiana’s heat and humidity.”
Eighty percent of the trainees wash out. Those who persevere typically earn their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Badge in six to nine months; Thames earned his in five. Most guards serve two years, but Thames served four, as both a sentinel and a relief commander, one of the longest periods of service for a Tomb guard.
The Tomb has been guarded continuously every minute of every day since July 2, 1937. The guard unit has quarters underneath the tomb that has cooking facilities, bathrooms and storage which serves as the staging area for those who are on guard duty.
“There are a lot of rumors, but contrary to what you might read, we don’t live underground for a year,” said Thames. “Eight men have guard duty as a unit, but only one of them, the sentinel, walks at a time. The others are in the below-ground quarters. During the daytime, the guard is changed every half hour in summer and every hour during the winter. While the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every two hours.”
The platoon works a three-team rotation, working 24 hours on/24 hours off for four days, then the fifth day is 24 hours on/96 hours off. But the time off isn’t exactly free time; it takes about 4 hours to prep their uniform for the next work day and another 4 hours to sand and shine their shoes. Additionally, they have physical training, tomb guard training and haircuts to complete before the next work day.
“People ask why go to so much trouble, who’s going to know? Well, we would know,” Thames stated. “The Unknowns gave up everything for us, even their identity. The best way to honor the Unknowns is to be as perfect and precise as possible.”
When the sentinel guards the graves, he paces 21 steps across the foot of the tombs with his M14 rifle always on the shoulder opposite the Tomb, faces the tomb for 21 seconds, then walks back across the tomb for 21 steps, then repeats it. Only under exceptional circumstances may the guard speak or alter his pace. If anyone attempts to enter the restricted area around the Tomb, he first will halt and bring his rifle to arms; then, if necessary, he will issue a strong verbal warning.
Nothing prevents these guards from upholding their responsibility. They did not leave their post when the Washington D.C. area experienced a rare a 5.8 magnitude earthquake this past August. And during the record 4-foot snowstorms dumped by a blizzard in 2010 that shut down the nation’s capital, Thames was on duty, and he and his men maintained their post for several days without relief because streets were impassable.
“We knew that a bad storm was coming,” Thames explained, “so we stocked up on food and supplies. During the storm, two soldiers shoveled snow ahead of the sentinel when needed so he could maintain his walk.”
Thames stopped guarding in August this year and returned to Louisiana and is living in Killian. He is attending Southeastern and plans to go into business for himself.
Of his time at Arlington, Thames said, “I broadened my knowledge of our nation’s history and politics just by being in Washington D.C. It was humbling to meet veterans and to deal with families of those killed in a war. I enjoyed my job, but I was up for re-enlistment, and if I had stayed I would’ve been assigned somewhere else. Besides, I was ready to get back to south Louisiana; it’s one of the best places on earth to live.”
On Thames’ last walk at Arlington, he performed a traditional rose laying ceremony at the headstones of each Unknown and then walked off with his family – his wife Brittany and parents Andy and Anita Thames of Walker.
The History of Arlington and the Tombs
Arlington was the 1,100-acre Virginia estate of the wife of General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army during the U. S. War Between the States. A palatial mansion was built there by Mrs. Lee’s father to display memorial items of his step-grandfather, President George Washington. It was at Arlington House that Robert E Lee wrote his letter resigning from the U. S. Army at the beginning of the war.
Mrs. Lee evacuated, and in 1864, the federal government confiscated the house and property because Mrs. Lee sent someone to pay her property tax – of $92.10 -instead of paying it herself in person. The house was used as a Union army headquarters, and by the end of the war, 2,111 Civil War unknowns were buried there, many close to the house in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden as a deliberate affront to the Lees. General and Mrs. Lee never lived in the house again.
In 1882, the Supreme Court ordered the lands returned to Lee’s eldest son. With over 10,000 grave sites there by then, he consented to sell the land to the U.S. Government for $150,000 in a ceremony presided over by Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War at that time and son of the late President Lincoln.
On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater. A white marble sarcophagus placed at the grave bears the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Subsequently, three soldiers, one each from World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars, were also laid to rest in the plaza near the sarcophagus. It’s in front of these graves that the Army sentinels walk back and forth and keep the vigil.
A little known fact is that the tomb of the Vietnam Unknown is now empty. A soldier was buried there on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, with President Reagan presiding over the funeral and standing in as the next of kin. After subsequent years of inquiries, the body was exhumed in 1998; DNA tests identified the soldier, and his body was returned to his family and buried in Missouri.
The decision was made to leave the grave vacant to represent all soldiers who died in Vietnam. There are no graves for any unknown soldiers from subsequent wars – nor do they anticipate there will be any in the future – because enhanced DNA identification and improved technology which allows better tracking of troops and has enabled the armed service to identify all soldiers killed in recent conflicts.
Arlington National Cemetery remains the nation’s most revered burial site, the final resting place for over 300,000 Americans.