Arlington National Cemetery | Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Chris Rosenblum | State College native guards Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

May 24, 2014 

A nation spends Memorial Day weekend remembering its military’s fallen.

Luke Porter devotes most of his life to that mission.

It’s his job.

He also makes sure others pay proper respect.

When he walks across the plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, his uniform crisp and immaculate, creases like razors, all eyes turn to him.

Tourists lounge and gab — until the State College native delivers the standard address for the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please,” he intones. “I am Sgt. Porter, of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Army Guard of Honor, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“The ceremony that you are about to witness is the changing of the guard. In keeping with the dignity of the ceremony it is requested that everyone remain silent and standing. Thank you.”

It always works.

“As soon as we say that, everyone stands up and everyone stops talking, and I love to see that,” Porter said.

Marines call themselves the “the few, the proud.” They’ve got nothing on Porter.

He’ll soon receive the prestigious Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge, the Army’s second least-awarded badge behind the Astronaut Badge, to become a member of the tomb’s Honor Guard.

Nine months of rigorous, on-the-job training, completed April 21, led to the sterling silver badge about 2 inches wide. At 24, Porter will become the 623rd recipient in Army history, and only the third medic to accomplish the feat.

On June 9, the badge will be pinned to his uniform, officially making him one of Arlington’s famous sentinels.

“To me, just in my personal experience, in my humble opinion, it’s my way of rendering honor to all the service people who came before me,” Porter said.

He has gone through a lot to earn the chance.

A 2008 State College Area High School graduate, he enlisted in the Army Reserves while still a student, then re-enlisted for active duty — a goal since middle school. His grandfather had been an infantry officer. One brother joined the Army and another served in the Marines.

“I always looked up to them,” Porter said. “I figured it would be the best way to not only serve my country but also carry on a family tradition.”

He became a platoon medic with the 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Kirkuk, Iraq. After his deployment ended, he planned to leave the military and come to Penn State to pursue a business management degree.

Instead, in a surprise move, he was reassigned to the fabled 3rd Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” the Army’s official ceremonial unit and presidential escort. Among other duties, the regiment provides the Army’s caisson platoon, colors team, drill team and presidential salute battery.

Annually, The Old Guard takes part in more than 6,000 military ceremonies and funerals, an average of 16 a day.

Porter couldn’t turn down the call. He put University Park on hold, re-enlisted, reported to his new assignment and volunteered for the Honor Guard, starting his education with online classes.

But the real learning took place in person.

Once he passed an initial interview with a senior noncommissioned officer, an intense two-week probationary period began — a trial phase to see if he had the right stuff for further training.

He had to memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history and Honor Guard general and specific orders verbatim, down to the exact punctuation, one page at a time recited before a senior trainer.

Each success earned a chance for a practice “walk.”

Sentinels march 21 steps down the black mat in front of the Tomb, face east for 21 seconds and then north for 21 seconds, and take another 21 steps back. The number symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the military’s highest honor.

At each turn, sentinels execute a precise “shoulder-arms” movement, placing their M-14 rifle on the shoulder closest to visitors as a sign of the Tomb’s protection from threats.

Walks last 30 minutes during summer days, an hour in the winter and always 60 minutes at night — a long time to stay sharp.

“The entire time you’re out there you’re thinking,” Porter said. “You’re not just walking aimlessly.”

But the trial phase was just the proverbial iceberg’s tip.

Next came the “new man” training: several months of service and testing. During that time, Porter absorbed more cemetery history, the grave locations of about 300 veterans and the guard-change ceremony, including the manual of arms during the inspection part of the ritual.

He learned that the Honor Guard consists of three reliefs, each with about six members grouped by height so that similar-sized guards replace each other.

There was also the sentinel uniform, no small matter.

As he quickly found out, the Honor Guard is rather picky about appearances.

Nothing remains standard issue. Sentinels make sure of that.

Caps have inside liners removed and wires inserted to make them rest flat on heads. Blouse sleeves and backs are sewn to present creases. Pants are specially pressed as well, and hemmed at 45-degree angles so the cuffs rest a certain way across leather shoes.

Measurements don’t have to be perfect — just within 1/64 th of an inch of regulations.

And the shoes, well, they’re almost a training phase unto themselves. They’re sanded and buffed for hours, until black glass shines back.

Sentinels themselves are polished to a fine sheen.

Candidates must pass a series of five tests, each with three parts: uniform appearance and maintenance, plaza performance and knowledge of military history and the cemetery.

Each test becomes progressively more difficult to pass. For the first, 10 “gigs,” or mistakes, are allowed on the uniform part, 15 on walk performance and 22 on knowledge.

The last, the so-called Badge Test, permits only two for each.

Fail any part twice in a row and you’re gone — which helps explain why 90 percent wash out.

Porter made it.

Before his parents, Joyce and Dave Porter, and his many siblings, he’ll finally wear the inverted wreath of his hard-earned piece of silver polished, naturally, to brilliance.

Rain or shine, in heat or cold, despite insect bites and itches, he’ll solemnly uphold the Sentinel’s Creed memorized long ago.

“My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted,” it begins, continuing in part: “In the responsibility bestowed on me will I never falter. And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.”

Out on the plaza, every second is Memorial Day, every step a tribute to the nameless remains of fallen but not forgotten souls.

“I’m in it because there are so many people who sacrificed so much more than I could ever imagine to sacrifice,” Porter said. “And I respect that so much that it’s become an enormous part of my life.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.