By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 7:51 PM
At the funeral Wednesday morning for Army Staff Sgt. Adam L. Dickmyer, many of the soldiers standing by his grave wore a brightly polished silver badge on the right chest pocket of their crisp blue jackets. On their steely faces, the sun reflected the glint of tears.
The "sentinels," as the guards of the Tomb of the Unknowns call themselves, had come to section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery to salute one of their own.
Dickmyer, 26, died Oct. 28 near Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds caused by a makeshift bomb. He was the first sentinel killed in action in 43 years and the first to die in the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.
He was the 12th sentinel interred at Arlington and the third in the unit's history to be killed in combat.
Dickmyer enlisted in the Army in 2003 shortly after graduating from Carver High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he was a member of an ROTC drill team.
His family said he thrived on the unit's military precision and discipline. Not long after beginning his military service, he joined the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Army's oldest active infantry unit.
The "Old Guard," as it is known, allows only carefully selected soldiers into its ranks, and those who join must adhere to the most rigorous spit-and-polish standards in the Army.
As a tomb guard, Dickmyer was among the elite of the elite. To join the platoon - which stands watch at the monument every hour of every day, no matter the weather - soldiers have to pass a battery of tests. Only 20 percent of the applicants become sentinels.
The applicants must learn where certain people are buried in Arlington, including Staff Sgt. William R. Spates Jr., the first sentinel killed in action in 1965, who rests in section 48.
Once they pass the tests and serve on tomb guard duty for longer than nine months, they receive a coveted silver badge identifying them as sentinels. The badge shows an inverted wreath, a symbol of mourning, and the figures of Valor, Victory and Peace.
With a stiff posture and fluid stride, Dickmyer walked the mat in front of the tomb for hours on end - despite admitting to his family that his knees, ankles and feet ached from the duty.
"We take it one step further because we are so visible," Dickmyer said in Robert M. Poole's 2009 book "On Hallowed Ground: The story of Arlington National Cemetery." "Thousands of people see us every day - more come here than go to the Jefferson Memorial - so we want to make the best possible impression. And we want the guys who sacrificed everything to know that they are still remembered, that someone still cares. That's why we do it."
Dickmyer rose through the ranks of the tomb guard and served as commander of the relief, leading a squad of sentinels on their daily duties. He later was promoted to assistant sergeant of the guard, the second-highest enlisted position in the platoon.
He was incredibly committed to his duties as a sentinel, said his wife, Melinda Randall Dickmyer, who noted that they spent several Thanksgivings and Christmases together at the tomb guard's post at the cemetery, under the amphitheater.
They met one April night in 2004 at a bar in Georgetown, and "the following Sunday morning, he went to church with me. That's how I knew he was a keeper," Melinda Dickmyer said.
In 2007, Dickmyer became the casket team leader for the Joint Services State Funeral unit, and he was the leading pallbearer at the funeral for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
A year ago, Dickmyer joined the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and he deployed to Afghanistan in June.
Dickmyer's decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. In his honor, his wife placed a wreath in front the Tomb of the Unknowns on Wednesday afternoon.