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

By story Christian Davenport and photos by Jahi Chikwendiu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A01

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.

All of which makes this training for imitating a marble statue seem silly.

But Pata's square shoulders, broad chest and chiseled chin make him exactly the sort of soldier the Old Guard wants representing the Army. So when the brass asked him to try out, he agreed, thinking it would be an easy respite after combat and before he goes out for the Special Forces.

He did not realize that he would spend his first week of training confined to a stuffy classroom relearning maneuvers from basic training, because the Old Guard does almost everything differently. While the rest of the Army, for example, stands at attention with toes apart, the Old Guard stands toes together, because it looks more orderly.

The Old Guard handbook says standards will be enforced "ruthlessly," and they are. Even after they finish training, graduates are inspected and tested every six months to make sure their uniforms are up to standard and their marching is in cadence. During a practice funeral at Arlington, a team takes 2 minutes and 30 seconds to fold a flag. The instructor is not pleased.

"1:55 is your no-later-than time," says Staff Sgt. Shawn Hall. "Guys, come on. 2:30? That's like four hours in cemetery time. You've got to tighten that [expletive] up. I need better than that, guys. . . . The Old Guard ain't a place to hide. There's a lot of prestige to this unit, there's a lot of prestige with being a casket member. . . . For that 4-year-old that just lost Papa, this a memory that will be ingrained in that kid's life forever."

The instructors are just as hard on Pata, who struggles to get the movements right.

"Don't look down."

"Tuck your thumb in."

"No bend in your wrist."

"Too slow, Pata."

"Too fast, Pata."

"Stick it. Stick it. Stick it."

Sticking it is an important concept in the Old Guard. It doesn't mean get it right, or nail it. It means stay still when you get it wrong. It means that if you put your rifle on your right shoulder instead of on your left like every other soldier in the company, you do not suddenly correct yourself. That only makes it worse. You stick it, and carry on as if that is exactly what you were supposed to do. Then, on the next movement, you make the correction, subtly, and fall back in sync.

"We are not perfect," the instructor barks. "But we give the appearance of being perfect."

As the end of the second week nears, Pata knows he is far from perfect. He passes his uniform inspection but fails the drill test. Four gigs: His elbow stuck out slightly on two movements, his thumb was an inch out of place, the butt of his rifle slipped a couple of inches forward.

"Small stuff," he complains. Now he'll have to repeat the week.

The small stuff, down to the most picayune detail, is the Old Guard's way of honoring the fallen.

The small stuff makes them more than soldiers. In public, they are living statues like the queen's beefeaters, paragons of strength and reassurance. In private, they are pallbearers, escorting the fallen home, in perfect lock step.

Two weeks in and Pata still doesn't get why the small stuff is such a big deal. Then again, he's yet to stand at attention while a widow watches her husband being lowered into the ground.

* * *

By week three, Pata decides it doesn't matter why the small stuff matters. If it helps him graduate from this training program, he'll embrace this Old Guard obsessiveness. Soon, his movements become rote, as crisp as his creases.

Final test day comes, and he's confident. He knows he's going to pass. Then he notices the stain on his medal. He rubs it with a cloth, then some Pledge, then his fingernail. It won't budge.

His sponsor, a soldier assigned to help him prep for his test, has an idea: Wear an additional rack of medals to cover the stained one. It's a risky move. Wearing more medals means more measurements that could be off, which is why most soldiers wear as few as possible for their test.

Pata has no choice. They scramble to affix the second rack exactly five-eighths of an inch above the first, hoping the inspector doesn't notice.

He doesn't. Pata passes, imperfection and all.

* * *

Pata has been to Ground Zero and Iraq, but until Thursday he had never been to Arlington. "Wow," he says, walking into the cemetery. He is awed by the rows of tombstones, one after another, in perfect symmetry.

The tombstones are 42 inches long, 13 inches wide and 4 inches thick. They are spaced 10 feet apart and, measured from the center, five feet side to side.

Old Guard soldiers plant thousands of flags for Memorial Day, each exactly a foot from the center of a tombstone. The ritual is calming and cathartic, the opposite of the chaos of the battlefield. Grave by grave, the soldiers transform this field, an expanse of green as controlled and measured as Pata's uniform on inspection day.

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