Place of Honor

I was at Arlington National Cemetery Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers yesterday, attending the hourly changing of the guard when I apparently witnessed a most rare event:  the oncoming sentry failed inspection.  I had never seen it happen though I knew it was part of Arlington lore and a possibility as each changing is accompanied by a rigorous review of soldier, weapon and uniform.

The inspection stopped at the point of the failure and the sentry removed himself to eventually reappear wherein the inspection picked up as it left off.  This time he passed and the guards changed out.



As we walked down the hill I thought to myself about what in my life I would seek repeated perfection for.  That is what Tomb Guards do, hour after hour and day after day. They are in pursuit of perfect precision if such a circumstance is mortally achievable.

Though I am limited to observation, guarding must be a “Zen-like” experience in the sense that precision, perfection and repetition is an inward journey of the mind and  spirit.  They guard regardless of the external environment: weather, distraction, time, crushing crowds or complete solitude.

It seems they seek repeated perfection as a form of showing honor, the notion that perfection is transmuted into reverence for the unknown soldiers they watch so carefully over.

Alas, the living are infinitely fallible.  I felt for the soldier in his failure and the rather public nature of it until it occurred to me that though it happened in front of hundreds of people it was, in fact, a most private event, shared between the guards and the honored dead.

We were present yet invisible, witness to reverence being perfected, a moment at a time.


Photo credit: WAPO


  • Smitty says:

    Wow, Eric. What a beautiful, thoughtful piece. Thank you for sharing.

  • RK says:

    Eric, There is a sermon in your message. Although we may try to live a good life and follow the rules, it is imposible. And when we fail as we all do, we have a Father who doesn’t call you out; He forgives you. A look at the empty cross is a reminder of his love for us. Thank you for your message.

  • Bill Hand says:


  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Eric — As always, I’m moved by your deep thinking. And what the sentries do is indeed wonderful. That said, I want to express a warning about perfectionism. Our entire society is so perfection-obsessed that we are often guilt-ridden, and filled with self-hatred (not to speak of medication!). I see this all the time in the prison population I work with. Their sense of self is so low that they feel defeated before they start. My job is to connect them with their essential goodness, so that they have some emotional “juice” with which to begin the long road to greater wisdom. That wisdom will, hopefully, translate to crime-free behavior when they get back out on our streets.
    By the way, there is a book out written by an Australian Buddhist practitioner/psychotherapist called The Wisdom of Imperfection. The basic thesis is: Don’t set your goals so impossibly high that you inevitably fail and become more self-hating than ever.
    I was myself so long in the grip of perfectionism that I nearly drove myself around the bend. Interestingly, as I learn to loosen the grip on myself a bit, I find I am much more productive than ever before.

  • Mike Schwartz says:

    Thank you.

  • Chris says:

    Eric, in searching for the perfect observation, I thought what the heck, just say that you loved it because indeed I did.

  • Walter says:

    At my dad’s internment at veteran’s cemetery, one of the GIs could not properly fold the flag to be presented to my mother. The other guy would not accept it and made him unfold and refold that thing 4 or 5 times. It was very uncomfortable for everyone involved. I felt bad for the guy but afterword I had a thought. My thought was this ” you have one job to do. Fold the flag the right way so that this family will have a positive memory of their loved one’s service. And you blew it.”
    Those families will never get that moment back.
    I think it applies here. You got one job. Do it right because it’s important.

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