Perspective on freedom

World War II veterans, most of them in wheelchairs, lined the walkway of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.

They left a lasting impression on Benton Thames, 25, of Denham Springs, who was one of the guards for years.

“They all had tears in their eyes and tried to stand up and salute me,” Thames said. “Some did manage to stand up and salute. It brought tears to my eyes as well.”

His tears were hidden behind the sunglasses the guards wear to protect their eyes from the glare of the granite.

In the 91 years since the monument was created, Thames is one of about 600 people who have been selected as a guard for the tomb.

Thames said he felt a huge responsibility as a guard of the four crypts that make up the monument.

“They died for the country and gave up their identity for the country,” Thames said of the soldiers interred there.

The crypts contain the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The fourth crypt contained the remains of a Vietnam War veteran who later was identified, Thames said.

The first guard post started in 1926. Since 1937, the tomb has been guarded every minute of every day, he said.

“It gave me a different perspective on the price of freedom,” Thames said.

Those who want to become a guard must undergo the selection process, which lasts two weeks, to see if they have what it takes to do the job. Potential guards must be physically, mentally and emotionally able to complete the months of training required to become a guard, Thames said.

“Training was miserable, horrible,” Thames recalled. “For five months, you can’t laugh or smile or just can’t talk about anything else except for the tomb,” during the 24 hours trainees put in at the tomb on alternate days.

Training is based on the participant’s own pace and takes five months to a year to complete, Thames said.

Throughout training, the commanding officers would strive for perfection and would find some reason to make the soldiers train harder, do more pushups or run longer distances, Thames said.

Thames felt that one of his hardest experiences in preparing to be a tomb guard was the last month of training and preparing for the final test.

Upon completion of training, a soldier receives his Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge in a special ceremony. Thames was the 564th person to receive his badge, which is one of the rarest in the military, Thames said.

After receiving the badge, the tomb guards go to work before 6 a.m. to inspect everything and then take over for the guards who were on duty before them, Thames said.

The first two hours consists of uniform inspections and getting into the rhythm of the marching cadence, he said.

The cemetery opens at 8 a.m. and the changing of the guard starts every 30 minutes, he said.

After the cemetery closes at 7 p.m., the guards switch from their dress gear to combat uniforms and become roaming guards to watch for problems around the tomb, he said.

Their day does not end until the next morning, when the next soldiers arrive, he said.

While the training was rigorous, Thames said he will never forget when, in 2007, while he was still a trainee, LSU played against Ohio for the national championship.

Thames was not supposed to watch television, but as the game started, he could hear the coin toss while he was eating in the kitchen.

LSU won the coin toss, and Thames made a sound of excitement in response. A commanding officer overheard him and asked if he wanted to watch the game.

He said he did and was allowed to watch, but Thames had to put on his uniform and hold a 10-pound rifle in one hand.

Thames held the rifle in a horizontal position with one hand in the middle of the gun until halfway through the third quarter of the game when he collapsed.

The officers were so impressed they allowed him to watch the rest of the game, Thames said.

The longest anyone had held the rifle in one hand before Thames was 20 minutes, Thames said.

The LSU football team visited the tomb a couple of months later, and Thames told Les Miles his story. Miles invited him to any game to stand on the field with him.

Thames attended the 2008 home game against Georgia and stood on the sideline before the game.

Thames’ last moment at the tomb was his sentinel walk, which is his last walk as a tomb guard, he said.

“It was bittersweet but I was very excited to get out of the military and to be back in Louisiana,” Thames said.

His parents, grandparents and friends were there to see his sentinel walk and hear taps played, he said.

“It was a very emotional time at the last walk and I was excited he was getting out of the Army, but sad that he was leaving the tomb guard,” said his mother, Anita Thames.

Prior to retiring his post, Thames, who was a tomb soldier for four years, was promoted to trainer and he is now in charge of the trainers.