State High Graduate Guards Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
It's sacred ground.
Inside Arlington National Cemetery -- where more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and family members are buried and where roughly 30 funerals are performed each weekday – there is a separate sacred place for the unknown.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the final resting place for American service members killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It's a place where nameless men who made the ultimate sacrifice are forever honored.
Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the Tomb Guard -- a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers in the official U.S. Honor Guard unit known as Old Guard -- stands watch at the tomb to display honor and respect for the unknown and prevent defacement of the grave.
It is a grueling post with the most meticulous requirements. Only 10 percent of soldiers who are selected to train actually earn a Tomb Guard Identification Badge.
State College Area High School graduate Luke Porter, a sergeant who served as a medic in Iraq, is the 623rd soldier to earn that badge.
"It's an honor for us to do it, so being selected just to start was an amazing honor," says Porter. "What you're doing is more important than you. It's all about these men who paid the ultimate sacrifice and they gave up their identity. ... It's as selfless as you can possibly be and so we honor that by being selfless."
Porter, 24, who graduated from State High in 2008, will officially serve as guard at the tomb on Sunday. He earned his badge Monday during a formal ceremony with his family at the Memorial Amphitheater in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Porter unintentionally ended up in the Old Guard. The Army assigned him there after declining his application for the Green to Gold program, which would have allowed him to attend college.
Initially, in the Old Guard, Porter served as a medic, ensuring everyone in the unit was up to date on medical requirements, like vision and hearing tests. He was happy with the assignment because it moved him from Texas to the East Coast and therefore closer to his family in State College.
Still, it was a transition. He went from an active combat unit to an inactive unit that was strictly ceremonial. That meant learning completely new procedures.
"Everything I knew about posture, walking, drills and ceremony was gone," he says.
After learning more about the work of the Old Guard, Porter became interested in becoming a Tomb Guard. He applied to the training program last June and began training in July. It concluded in April.
Training is intense with a series of tests on a range of topics -- from uniform appearance to marching to knowledge of the tomb and cemetery.
Candidates are frequently dismissed from the training process for failing to meet standards. Porter was the only soldier of five in his training group to earn a badge.
The hardest part of training for Porter was the schedule. Guards work for 26 hours in one shift before 22 hours of off-duty time during a nine-day work cycle. During training, Porter found himself, dedicating "off" time to practicing ceremonial steps -- like "walking the mat" which entails walking back and forth on a rubber mat in front of the tomb with 21 second intervals – studying the weapons manual, and pressing uniforms.
"It was just a matter of time management. The more proficient I got at things the more quickly I could do them," Porter says.
It was also a matter of discipline and motivation.
"You do it because it's a challenge ... and then you come to appreciate what you're doing and what everyone around you is doing," Porter says. "You develop respect for people you're working with, the unknowns and the funerals for those killed, missing in action, or retired vets buried. It's not just a small picture for us. We guard the unknowns because they are symbolic for us."
Porter's parents, David and Joyce, say their son has always been determined to accomplish his goals.
"It just shows his personality. He had the attitude that you just don't quit; you keep working at it. It's been a trait he's always had," says David Porter.
Joyce Porter adds, "Luke is very dedicated when he wants something."
David Porter has seen three sons serve in the military, which he says is particularly meaningful for him. During the Vietnam War, because he was enrolled in college, the government didn't draft him to serve. Since then, he's always struggled with that fact.
"It's something that's always haunted me. With my three boys all serving I feel like ... it makes it special," he says.
Several months into training, Luke Porter started taking online college courses. He has 66 credits toward a bachelor's degree in business management. He'll continue to work toward that degree while serving his country.
"It's an enormous responsibility. It's an enormous honor to be a part of what we do," he says. ... "They are soldiers who gave up everything they could have possibly given. They gave up their identity, their lives, everything gone and they're families will never know where they ended up. ... It's important to honor their memory."