To join the Army's Old Guard, Iraq war veteran learns to sweat the small stuff

A soldier goes through an obsessively precise training program to become a member of the ceremonial Old Guard, the unit that performs funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
By story Christian Davenport and photos by Jahi Chikwendiu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

They are crazy about creases in the Old Guard, which is why it takes Army Sgt. Nicholas Pata more than an hour to press his uniform the night before inspection.

They are obsessive about loose threads, too, which is why Pata burns them off with a lighter. Next, he polishes his shoes and brass. Then out comes the lint brush, because a speck of lint, like a scuffed shoe or a medal more than one-sixteenth of an inch out of place, could cause him to fail, even to be sent back for an extra week of maniacally repetitive training.

Pata, who is 27 and looks every bit the model soldier, does not want to fail. He wants to join the Old Guard, the most obsessive-compulsive unit in the Army. Pata has survived a harrowing 15-month tour in Iraq. He spent the week after 9/11 digging for bodies in the rubble of Ground Zero. On nights and weekends, he volunteers with the Prince George's County fire department. But it's not yet clear that he has what it takes to make it in the precision unit that performs funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and guards the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Headquartered at Fort Myer in Arlington County, the Old Guard, the Army's oldest active-duty infantry unit, escorts the president and serves at inaugurations and state dinners. Each Memorial Day weekend, it helps plant thousands of flags at Arlington, and once again the unit becomes the public face of the military -- a stoic symbol of a nation's resolve, perfect to within a sixteenth of an inch.

That ceremonial, iconic role makes it essential for Old Guard leaders to choose their soldiers carefully. Members of the unit must be at least 5-foot-10, physically fit and able to stand for hours at a time without so much as flinching. They have to master choreographed steps and marches and put together a flawless uniform, all of which they learn during an intensive three-week Regimental Indoctrination Program, which, as Pata is discovering, is unlike anything else in the Army.

Here, a ruler is almost as important as a rifle. Everything must be in its place -- medals half an inch above the breast pocket, U.S. insignia one inch from the lapel edge, buckle two inches from the belt loop. Nothing in the constellation of the many decorations on Pata's uniform may be outside a one-sixteenth-of-an-inch margin of error -- two tiny tick marks on the inspector's ruler, about the width of this o. Anything more and Pata gets what the Old Guard calls a gig. Three gigs and you fail.

Inspection time looms. A fellow soldier helps Pata fix his belt tight, clips one last derelict thread, and then, like a designer prepping a model for the runway, checks the soldier's shoes, soles, hair, hat, rifle, belt, gloves, cuffs, medals.

That's when they notice the stain. Two tiny blue inklike dots in the white stripe of his Iraqi Campaign medal, invisible from more than a few feet away.

"Uh-oh," Pata says. "That could be a problem."

* * *

Why does it matter that his tie always be knotted in a double Windsor? So what if his medals are slightly off-center? Who cares if his hair grows longer than two inches?

Pata knows from real combat experience that those are not the measurements that matter. In the military and in life, the most important metrics are the ones you can't control. The mortar that lands 100 feet away instead of 10. The bullet that hits the thigh but misses the artery. His Iraq was a series of near-misses, bullets whistling by, inches away. Pata returned home last year without a scratch. He was lucky. His friend Sgt. Jon Michael Schoolcraft, killed when a bomb went off next to his Humvee, was not.

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