Principal recalls special role

FAIRMONT – “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

This dedication etched on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia might invoke a sense of patriotism and loss in many Americans, but for Jamie Goebel, these simple words bring back memories of his time as a guard at the monument.

Goebel, who is in his first year as assistant principal at Fairmont High School, will speak at a Veterans Day assembly 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Performing Arts Center. While the event is open to the public, Goebel issued a special invitation to all veterans to come and be honored.

Although he initially planned to attend air school after enlisting in the U.S. Army, Goebel applied and was accepted as a member of the Old Guard, which is responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“The Old Guard is the oldest active infantry regiment in the Army,” Goebel said. “It dates back to George Washington.”

Goebel applied and was accepted for training as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns in November 1997. Considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, the sentinels are issued identification badges, the second least-awarded in the military, with the first being the astronaut badge.

“It’s the only badge in the Army that can be revoked at any time,” Goebel said. He keeps his at home, but “I carry it daily in my heart.”

Being accepted for sentinel training does not ensure that you will be a tomb guard. Applicants must undergo rigorous and disciplined training for more than eight months.

“The standard is perfection,” Goebel said. “You would spend hours on your shoes, building up the shine.”

Each sentinel is responsible for his or her uniform. (There are three females in the group.) Uniforms are ironed daily, with great attention to detail. All creases must be sharp, and clothing edges must be smooth.

Perfect appearance is only one part of the training. Knowledge of the Tomb of Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery and other military information is mandated. Applicants must memorize several pages of history, poems and information and be able to recite it verbatim in order to get past the first week. They also must learn where hundreds of famous people are buried among the 300,000-plus graves in the cemetery so that accurate directions can be given to people trying to locate a gravesite.

Physical training also is paramount. Sentinels must exhibit adequate strength to stand still for extended lengths of time and maintain proper grip and positioning of their weapon.

The number 21, representing the highest military honor that can be bestowed – the 21-gun salute – plays an integral part of each patrol. A sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat laid across the tomb; turns and faces east, toward the tomb, for 21 seconds; turns and faces north, changing his weapon to his outside shoulder; waits for 21 seconds; then marches 21 steps down the mat to repeat the process. A weapon always is carried on the shoulder closest to visitors to signify the guard stands between the tomb and any possible threat.

Children slipping inside the chains surrounding the Tomb of the Unknowns is commonplace, Goebel said, but occasionally there are other instances.

“I had two guys come on the plaza,” Goebel said. “They didn’t get confrontational when I approached them, but I didn’t know what their intention was.” The pair left without incident, he added.

“Why do we guard it? These men went to fight and gave up their lives, but they also gave up their identities,” Goebel said. “These unknowns represent all the men and women who died.”

The first remains interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1921 was a World War I soldier. This was followed by remains from World War II and Korea in 1958.

The remains of the unknown soldier from Vietnam, interred in 1984, made headlines during Goebel’s tenure as a sentinel. A report by CBS news in January 1998 raised a strong possibility that the remains could be identified due, in part, to advancements in genetic testing. The remains were exhumed in May of that year and identified the following month as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, whose family lives in Missouri.

“It was one of those nights I’ll never forget,” Goebel said of the exhumation. “I felt hurt and sad. This was our brother we had protected for years. But I was glad for his family.”

The tomb formerly occupied by Blassie remains empty, he added.

Goebel served with the Old Guard for 18 months, which allowed him time to train newcomers to the unit. When he left his post as a sentinel in March 1999, he went on his 521st and final patrol and followed an honored custom: He paused and placed a rose on each of the unknown soldier’s markers.

Goebel served nine years in the Army, three on active duty and six with the National Guard, until he felt compelled to focus on this career and other duties.

“I had kids, a family,” he said. “I felt that was my duty at that point.”

He and his wife, Heidi, have three children: Evan, 9; Aubrey, 6; and Isaac, who is almost 3 months old.

Today, Goebel is enjoying his life as assistant principal and family man, but his time guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns always will remain a highlight.

“When I walked in there and when I walked out, I was two different people,” he said. “If – for the rest of my career – I would be as happy as I was then, I will have been successful.”