When he joined the U.S. Army, Ohio native Stephan Ruppel-Lee requested an Infantry assignment in Korea because he thought it would give him the best chance to eventually be selected for the demanding Ranger School.
The Army had other plans.
One day near the end of his Infantry training, Ruppel-Lee’s captain informed him and four of his fellow lieutenants that they were being assigned to the 3rd Infantry Regiment – traditionally known as “The Old Guard.”
“Shortsightedly, I was not particularly excited about this turn of events because it significantly reduced my chances of being able to join the Ranger Battalion,” recalled Ruppel-Lee, who served as guest speaker for Chesterfield’s 2023 Memorial Day ceremony Monday afternoon at the county fairgrounds.
The Old Guard is the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit, dating back to 1784, and its official ceremonial unit and escort to the President of the United States. But it is best known for its specialty platoon of sentinels who diligently keep watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Ruppel-Lee, now a colonel and Army staff officer at the Pentagon, served as platoon leader at the tomb from 2001 to 2002. During solo overnight shifts, he frequently found himself humbled at the thought of “some random kid from Ohio” being selected for such a meaningful duty.
“The sentinel symbolizes our nation’s commitment to our fallen servicemembers that we will never forget their sacrifice,” he said. “It was an immense honor to be that symbol for a short period of time.”
In October 1921, the unidentified remains of four U.S. soldiers killed during World War I were exhumed from different American military cemeteries in France. One was chosen to be buried in a special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1921, the third anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.
“We do not know the eminence of his birth, but we do know the glory of his death. He died for his country, and greater devotion hath no man than this,” said President Warren G. Harding in his remarks at the Burial of the World War I Unknown Soldier.
More than a century later, Chesterfield County and the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia jointly marked this year’s Memorial Day observance with the construction of a replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sarcophagus that has stood at Arlington National Cemetery since 1932.
Matt Neer, a Chesterfield County Public Library employee, performed 3-D printing for the structure, while Ed Humphries and Joann Cecil of the county’s Department of General Services handled carpentry and painting, respectively.
Following a presentation of banners in memory of 16 Chesterfield fallen soldiers and a wreath honoring the county’s Gold Star families, Monday’s event concluded with the playing of taps and a ceremonial Changing of the Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, featuring members of the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Honor Guard: Staff Sgt. Theodore Knight, Deputy First Class Robert Perrino and Career Deputy Edwood Corker.
“Soldiers were first assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1926 to discourage visitors from climbing or stepping on it,” noted Kevin Carroll, chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, in his remarks. “These men and women work 24-hour shifts, marching through rain, snow, sleet and heat to demonstrate our country’s collective gratitude. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be one of those guards, in the middle of the night, alone in such a solemn, quiet place.”
Carroll referenced a 1991 speech given by President George H.W. Bush at Arlington National Cemetery, in which he quoted a young tomb sentinel who felt a special “kinship” with the fallen servicemembers buried there: “Sometimes the rain streaks in your eyes and your hands go numb from the cold, but then I think of what they suffered through, and after that my duty doesn’t seem hard at all.”
“These are words we should all remember,” Carroll added. “To those who have died and those they left behind, we are eternally indebted.”