A Soldier-Turned-Senator Honors America’s Heroes in ‘Sacred Duty’
Rob Bluey / Rachel del Guidice /
Before becoming a U.S. senator, Tom Cotton served his country in Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned a Bronze Star and was elected to Congress from Arkansas in 2012. Two years later, he defeated a two-term Democrat incumbent to become a 37-year-old senator. And now, in a new book called “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery,” Cotton tells the remarkable story of The Old Guard and its important role as the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit. After returning from his Iraq deployment, Cotton served at Arlington with the Army’s official ceremonial unit. The experience led him to research The Old Guard’s rich history and write “Sacred Duty.” He spoke to The Daily Signal about the book. The interview is available on our podcast along with a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: You served in the United States Army as an infantry officer and spent nearly five years on active duty. You also were with The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. Can you tell us about “Sacred Duty” and the inspiration behind it?
Tom Cotton: “Sacred Duty” tells the story of The Old Guard of Arlington. I have found in my time in public life that Arlington holds a very special place in the hearts of our fellow citizens.
When Arkansans come to see me in Washington, they usually stay for a few days and go to all the normal tourist destinations. When I ask them what their favorite destination is, almost always they answer Arlington.
Likewise, when I travel around the country and I’m introduced, the questions I get most about my own background is my time at Arlington National Cemetery.
Yet, the young soldiers who honor our fallen heroes, who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who present the face of the Army to the world at large public ceremonies, have never had their story told.
This book is the story of The Old Guard and what they have done for our nation all the way back to 1784, and what they do today in Arlington National Cemetery.
Rachel del Guidice: This is your first book, and it seems like most politicians usually write an autobiography or a policy book. Why did you choose to do something different?
Cotton: Because I wanted to write an interesting book. I have lots of time and lots of opportunities to talk about my ideas and to talk about myself. The Old Guard has never had its story told in a full book-length format, and they deserve to have that story told.
It’s a very long and rich story, so it needs book-length treatment, not just an interview, or a magazine article on Memorial Day or on Veterans Day.
I could tell from the interest that Americans had in the cemetery and in Arlington that their story would resonate. The story of how they strive for perfection, how they hold themselves to the standard of the highest excellence for every single funeral, even if there’s no one attending the funeral, to honor their fallen comrades was a story that would resonate with Americans of all stripes.
Bluey: You wrote this book while serving as a U.S. senator, which I imagine had its demands, but at the same time you were able to do some really great research that went into telling the story.
What was it like to go back? You had personal experience, but there were some things you said that you didn’t have the opportunity to experience. What was it like to go back to recreate some of those moments and tell those stories in the book?
Cotton: “Sacred Duty” tells the story of The Old Guard, it’s not my story. I have a very small part in the more than 200-year story of The Old Guard. It was an important time at the cemetery, in 2007 and 2008, when we were laying to rest so many fallen heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan.
I go all the way back to 1784. I did a lot of archival research at the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, and the Center for Military History.
I also went back to the cemetery. I went back to Fort Myer, the home of The Old Guard adjacent to the cemetery, to interview dozens of soldiers, to tell their story, or observe funerals.
I spent many nights at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The platoon there is on duty around the clock, so they’re always available for interviews.
In my official capacity, I observed many events that ended up in the book, like the state funeral for George H.W. Bush, the first state funeral in 12 years for The Old Guard and its sister services, or at the White House South Lawn for the arrival ceremony for the state visit of the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
The book goes behind the scenes and tells the story of how these soldiers spend hours and hours to rehearse their craft, to practice specific sequences for these funerals and these ceremonies, to spend hours getting their uniform ready.
All of which they do not just for stuffy formalities, or for fussiness, but because those sacrifices in some small way help capture the sacrifice of the fallen heroes that they honor every single day in Arlington.
Bluey: That perfection truly is amazing, as you detail in the book.
del Guidice: How did The Old Guard get its name?
Cotton: That’s an old story from the history of the regiment. As I said, it’s older than our Constitution itself, going back to 1784.
By the time of the Mexican War in 1846 and 1847, the regiment was already 60 years old, and it had a pretty distinguished history, in the Northwest Indian War, in the War of 1812, and out on the frontier of the settlement.
In the final days of the Mexican War in 1847, after Mexico City fell, there was a victory parade into Mexico City, and that campaign had been led by Gen. Winfield Scott, the longest-serving general in American history to this day. He had fought alongside The Old Guard in the War of 1812, as a young general up in the Niagara Falls area.
I suspect that Gen. Scott wanted to honor his old comrades in arms in a regiment with him. He had a long and distinguished history. He put the 3rd Infantry Regiment, which is still The Old Guard’s official designation today, at the head of the victory parade into Mexico City.
As the parade marched by Gen. Scott and his staff, he turned around and said, “Gentlemen, take your hats off to The Old Guard of the Army,” and ever since 1847, they’ve been known as The Old Guard.
Bluey: You tell the story in the book, when you were serving overseas, you came back to the United States and you did have a part serving with The Old Guard. What does it take to become a member of The Old Guard? How did you end up with this unit?
Cotton: Standards are very high, and almost everyone there is by volunteer. For the young privates, which make up the bulk of The Old Guard, as they do for any infantry regiment, at Fort Benning, The Old Guard has a recruiter.
After screening for all the basic requirements—like height and weight, physical fitness, very high test scores for general intelligence, ensuring there’s no criminal record or other kind of character issues—they ask for volunteers who want to perform this sacred duty at Arlington, and they get a handful of takers.
For officers like myself and for sergeants, we would have to apply. We would typically have to have performed the job for which we are applying in a highly proficient fashion.
For me personally, I can tell you that’s not quite the way it worked out. Back in 2006-2007, the Army was strained by two wars, and The Old Guard—like most regiments—were pretty short on officers.
Unlike most regiments, sergeants can’t fill in for officers. If the Army manuals call for an officer to be on the marks, in front of a platoon of troops in the cemetery or in the parade field, it has to be an officer. The Old Guard just chose six officers from the 101st Airborne, as it happened.
I remember calling from Iraq, once I got orders there, asking why this happened since I had not applied. They said, “We’re short on officers, and we searched through all the basic criteria, height, weight, physical fitness, Ranger qualified, Airborne qualified, which are the requirements for officers. We picked six.”
I said, “There must be a couple hundred of us, right? That fit those criteria.” They said, “Yeah, at least that much.”
At that point, I thought maybe it was because I’d been such a superior performer with my platoon in Iraq, and I said, “How did you narrow down the big pull to just six of us?” I was told that they just rank ordered them by height and picked the six tallest ones.
Sure enough, about three or four months later, there we were, six officers, captains and lieutenants, with Screaming Eagle, 101st Airborne patches on our right shoulder to designate our combat service with the 101st Airborne. One was 6-foot-7-inch, and I’m 6-foot-5-inch, and the other four were 6-foot-3-inch.
Bluey: There are some great photos in the book, including one of you in uniform, serving. I encourage them to pick it up and check that out because I think it really gives a perspective of the care and attention to detail, as you talk about.
del Guidice: What is it like to perform a funeral at Arlington? Is there a particularly memorable experience that you’ve witnessed?
Cotton: Every funeral at Arlington is different, even though The Old Guard performs up to 20 a day, sometimes more than 100 in a week. Not least because for that family it is that once-in-a-lifetime moment, and that’s a lifetime in the making.
The cemetery sections have different terrains, some are very flat, some are hilly. You don’t know if it’s going to be rainy or sunny until usually the day of. We perform funerals in all conditions.
Every funeral is somewhat different, but we approach every funeral with the same commitment to excellence, striving for perfection. When we don’t achieve perfection, we always do corrective training and self-assessment afterward as well.
We want to send that family off with that last perfect image of honor. We also want to remind all of our young soldiers who are at the regiment performing those funerals that this is exactly how their Army will care for them if something happens to them.
It starts very early in the morning, before dawn most months of the year, when we’d go on into the cemetery and do a recon at grave sites, to identify those small differences and changes, to ensure that there weren’t low-hanging trees that would interfere with the carrying of the color guard into the fields, or that there weren’t holes next to the grave site the casket team needed to be aware of.
We’d get on-site at least 30 minutes before the funeral. We’d do a talk through rehearsal. We’d do a quick uniform inspection. Everything was rehearsed, down to the smallest detail, exactly because we wanted to make sure that we paid perfect honor to our fallen heroes.
There were a lot of funerals. I probably performed 400 or 500 funerals in my 16 months there.
One that stands out in particular, as I write in much greater detail in “Sacred Duty,” is the funeral for Easy 40, a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in January of 2007, with 12 soldiers on board.
The Army was able to identify remains for the individual soldiers for individual burials, but there were enough commingled remains that they had a group burial in Section 60.
I was a part of that very large funeral, the largest one anyone could remember at Old Guard, with hundreds and hundreds of mourners, many four-star generals, and many senior government officials as well.
It was such an unusual funeral and had such a high profile that probably more than any other single funeral stood out in my mind.
Bluey: We’re talking to Sen. Tom Cotton about his new book called “Sacred Duty.”
Senator, those of us like myself or Rachel, who live in the Washington, D.C., area, we have this treasure right here with us, Arlington National Cemetery.
You write about the history of Arlington and its relation and connections to George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
Can you share a little bit with our listeners about why it is such a significant and meaningful place?
Cotton: The land that became Arlington seems, as if I could borrow from Tocqueville, destined to become our national cemetery by a secret design of providence.
Many Americans, most of those who have visited the cemetery know about its connection to Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee. Mary Custis Lee inherited that land from her father, Robert E. Lee was a steward of it.
He was offered command of the Union Army in April of 1861. He declined it on the spot. Then he resigned his commission, and then he left Arlington never to return. Mary Custis Lee left a few weeks later at his urging.
The Union Army occupied that land on May 24, 1861, and the Army has held it ever since. That’s because, as anyone who’s been to Arlington knows, it occupies the commanding heights above Washington. Confederate artillery could have ranged much of Washington, if the Union Army didn’t occupy it.
But the history goes back even farther than Robert E. Lee. Arlington origins are deeply connected to George Washington, the father of our country.
His adopted son, Martha’s only surviving son by her first marriage, before she was widowed at an early age, wanted to be closer to his parents and wanted to be closer to Mount Vernon.
There’s correspondence from George Washington when he was at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778 to his son about how to go about buying that land and cultivating it into a successful farm.
Unfortunately, that adopted son died from a fever contracted at the triumphant Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Another tragedy that visited Martha and George’s life.
He left a 6-month-old heir, and Martha and George adopted that son, too, Martha’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son, and raised him at Mount Vernon, raised him in Philadelphia during President Washington’s eight years as president in our capital there.
Then he inherited his father’s land in 1802. From that point forward, he really dedicated his life and dedicated Arlington to becoming kind of a public memorial for George Washington.
That big mansion you see up on top of the hill, which is where Mary and Robert lived for so many winters during his military service, was built as a kind of homage to Mount Vernon.
He went deep into debt all his life to obtain Washington memorabilia and relics from Mount Vernon, or his time in the Revolutionary War, his time as president. He would throw open that house and that land to the public to come celebrate George Washington, in particular on Washington’s birthday.
Robert E. Lee lived through all these things. Robert E. Lee left for his first command in Texas carrying one of George Washington’s sabers, which was given to him by his father-in-law, who had been George Washington’s adopted son.
That’s why I say that Arlington really is sacred ground. It seems like it was destined from the beginning to become our national cemetery, a place that rose from the ashes of the Civil War to symbolize unity and reconciliation after that much terrible time in our nation’s history.
del Guidice: In the book, you write about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and how it is one of the most famous destinations for tourists.
Something that really stood out to me was how you mentioned that the tomb guards there are very aware that many Americans will only see the changing of the guard probably once in their lifetime.
What does it take, what goes into what all of the guards do to strive for perfection in all they do to get the ceremony down perfectly for thousands of Americans that come to see this?
Cotton: The tomb’s platoon’s operating manual notes from the very outset that this is the most prominent guard post in the entire United States of America. There are thousands of military guard posts all around the country.
In a certain way, this is simply another posted guard, but they understand that this is a unique guard post.
More than 4 million Americans come through the gates of Arlington every year, and the vast majority of them will walk up that hill to see a changing of the guard every half-hour in the summer, every hour in the winter.
While they guard the tomb to honor the unknowns, they also keep in mind what Joe DiMaggio said whenever he was asked why he played so hard every single day, even in the dog days of August, when the Yankees were far ahead, is that someone there at this changing of the guard is seeing us for the very first time, and that is the only time they will ever see us.
That’s one reason why the tomb platoon is so unique. It takes sometimes nine to 12 months to earn one’s tomb badge. The attrition rate for tomb guards is approaching 90% because the standards are so high.
They spend so much time, put so much effort every single night into getting their uniforms back in presentable condition, striving for that perfect standard, that perfect image of honor for the next day.
As one tomb guard told me, as I describe in greater detail in “Sacred Duty,” what is it to have to spend an overnighter getting your shoes shined again, or getting your scabbard shined again, getting your uniform repressed, and not being able to sleep for a night, what kind of sacrifice is that compared to these three unknown soldiers’ sacrifice?
They didn’t just give up their lives, they gave up their very identity in the defense of our nation.
Bluey: It’s just incredible. I had the opportunity last year to bring my two boys to Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard.
At the end of the day, they do something I think slightly different for the last changing there. Just powerful for them, even though they were both under 10 at the time.
In the book, you talk about how even in the midst of national disasters, like 9/11, The Old Guard still performed funerals scheduled at Arlington, which is something that maybe Americans don’t really know that these things take place.
Can you share with us about the tradition and why it’s so important to carry forward and do this?
Cotton: If you have a funeral scheduled at Arlington for your loved one, that funeral will occur, period, no questions asked. Nothing ever interferes with a funeral. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. Not even 9/11.
For those who haven’t been to Arlington or haven’t been down in the southeastern corner of Arlington, which is the most active section of the cemetery, it’s only about 200 yards away from the Pentagon, the western facade of the Pentagon, which is where American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the morning of Sept. 11. In fact, when it hit at 9:37, most funerals were still going on in the cemetery.
The Old Guard rushed troops down to the Pentagon, at first as medical platoon, to provide emergency medical care, but later in the day, hundreds of troops to provide security.
They stayed there for 30 days after 9/11 to help with the recovery of remains from that crash site, as the largest infantry unit in the capital region, with hundreds of young, physically fit soldiers. They were really the only unit that could do that back-breaking work in very dangerous conditions.
That night, when they helped disperse the visitors who had stayed in the cemetery up until closing, they came across parts of the airplane that had been smashed into the cemetery, over the short distance over Washington Boulevard.
The same standard held true last December, during President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral.
With all of the ceremony that Americans saw on TV, and with hundreds and hundreds of Old Guard soldiers and their counterparts in the other four services, dedicated to honoring President Bush in Houston, and in the nation’s capital, and at Texas A&M, funerals continued at Arlington exactly as planned.
So many families came up to those soldiers after those funerals, rushed over from the grave site to the bus before the soldiers took off, and said, “Thank you so much for being here to honor my father, my mother, my brother, my sister. We were sure when we learned the news last weekend that President Bush had died, that our funeral’s going to be canceled.”
It never happens. No matter the weather, no matter what’s going on around the capital region, it never happens.
The other Old Guard activities are not the same. Sometimes ceremonies, retirements, that kind of thing, will be rescheduled. They’ll be moved to earlier or later in the day to accommodate weather or changes in schedule.
The one thing that is never altered at Arlington is the funerals because they’re always going to be present on the marks at the time appointed to honor our fallen heroes.
del Guidice: Memorial Day is coming up soon, and you share a story in the book about your own experience placing flags at gravesites for this really special holiday. Why is this so special to The Old Guard?
Cotton: Every Thursday before Memorial Day weekend is known as Flags In. After the last funeral, Old Guard soldiers will march into the cemetery and they’ll put a small American flag at every gravesite. It’s at over 230,000 now, I think, for about 440,000 men, women, and children who are buried in those gravesites.
That goes back to the Revolutionary War, up to soldiers who were just killed, or veterans who just died in old age yesterday.
That’s a tradition that reminds their families, the visitors to Arlington on Memorial Day—the heaviest trafficked period of the year—and everyone who sees it that we will never forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.
For The Old Guard, it’s a particularly special day to perform that mission, which they perform every single day, because every single soldier in The Old Guard does it.
The Old Guard, like any infantry regiment, is mostly infantrymen, but has a lot of support soldiers as well. It has mechanics, and cooks, and clerks. They’re not typically out performing funerals or marching in ceremonies.
For them, this is a chance for them to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow soldiers in The Old Guard and perform The Old Guard’s core mission. That’s one reason why it’s one of the biggest events of the year for The Old Guard.
It’s perfectly open for the public. It’s the Thursday before Memorial Day, and anyone can go into the cemetery and see soldiers from north to south, east to west, putting those flags in, and go up and thank them for their service—as I saw so many Americans do last year when I visited on Flags In. It’s happened to me during my time at The Old Guard, back in the last decade.
Bluey: Senator, I want to ask you, finally, you’re somebody who recounts in the book how you came to serve in the Army. Sept. 11 played a transformational role in your life. You finished law school and later enlisted. You’ve gone on now to write this incredible book called “Sacred Duty” to help us all understand some of the sacrifices that go into it.
What would you like listeners to take away most, if they were to get a copy of your book?
Cotton: “Sacred Duty” tells the story of The Old Guard, but The Old Guard acts on behalf of our nation.
The long hours they put in pressing their uniforms, making medals from scratch, perfecting their craft of marching, or folding a flag, or firing seven rifles as one in a three-volley salute, are simply a reflection of the love that all of us hold in our breasts for our nation’s warriors.
From the Revolutionary War up to today, they are acting on behalf of a grateful nation. They’re expressing that grateful nation’s gratitude to the next of kin, and to the family, and the mourners for every hero that they laid to rest in Arlington.
I know that we live in divided times these days. I feel that oftentimes we probably overestimate just how divided our nation is.
If you look at the origins of the cemetery and how Arlington became our place of national unity and reconciliation at a time when Americans raised arms against each other, and killed each other in such great numbers, that the plantation across the river from our nation’s capital had to become a graveyard and then a national cemetery.
Even in these divided times, what The Old Guard represents to our nation and what Arlington represents to our nation is a sense of unity, reconciliation, respect, and even love for those who carry its banner forward in combat, to defend all of us and our freedom at home.
Bluey: The book is called “Sacred Duty,” by Sen. Tom Cotton. Thanks so much for writing it.
Cotton: Thank you.