By Mike Bush
Arlington, VA (KSDK)- Every day here, dignity is the first to arrive.
Followed closely by honor and respect.
Arlington National Cemetery is sacred ground.
At the top of the hill, our country's most cherished shrine, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is never alone. It's guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, rain or shine.
"It's an impressive thing that I think every American should see. It reminds you of the people who died to protect our country", said Mary Weber, a spectator from Wichita, KS.
Dan Debold is the Sergeant of the Guard. It's the 25 year old St. Louisan's job to make sure that every guard-changing ceremony is performed with the appropriate polish and precision.
"Everyday, I wake up about 4am," said Debold.
Before dawn, Sgt. Debold begins his workday in a bunker below the tomb. The bunker is equipped with offices, a kitchenette, a conference table, sleeping quarters and a lockerroom.
"I'll come in, we check out quarters every morning to make sure this place is literally spotless," said Debold.
He decided to join the army shortly after 9/11.
"I watched the second plane fly into the building", he recalls.
Debold signed up to be in the infantry but during basic training at Fort Benning Georgia, for reasons still unknown to him, he was invited to join the prestigious Old Guard. Soldiers from the Old Guard escort the President, conduct military ceremonies and funerals and since 1948, they've been guarding the tomb of the Unknowns.
Less than a quarter of the soldiers who apply to become Tomb guards are accepted and far fewer make it to active service.
"Probably a little bit under 100 guys have quit, since I've been here", said Debold.
When it's your job to pay tribute to your nation's fallen heroes, grooming is everything. After every shift, Debold cleans and prepares his dress blues. He uses a micrometer to position each medal.
"I would have to say that it takes me anywhere from 5 to 6 hours after every work day to prepare for the next day," explains Debold.
Much of that time is spent hand polishing shoes. If you can't see yourself, you can't show yourself.
"It's kind of like a testament to our hard work," he said.
Debold teaches his charges to abide by the Sentinels creed, which begins, "My dedication to this sacred duty is total."
"And line six says, my standard will remain perfection and that's what he lives his life by," said Sgt. Ty Vickers, another tomb guard.
Every year, millions of Americans come to see the changing of
the guard. It's a ritual that happens every half hour during the summer. Every hour during the winter. And every two hours when the cemetery is closed. And no matter how many times he's done it, Sergeant Debold says it never gets old.
"This place is almost religious", said Debold. "Some people will just watch. They will sit there for a while. Some people cry. It really represents the guys who gave it all."
He will be leaving this post in the next few months to begin special forces training so he can become a member of the Green Berets to help out in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever he's needed.
"In my mind, there's no option," said Debold.
The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is our nation's reminder
that freedom isn't free. After three years of watching out for the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice, Sgt. Debold is convinced that when he leaves here, they'll be watching out for him.