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A Soldier’s Story

October 28, 2011

Staff photo/Angie Klosterman: Erika Angstmann, Natalie Kuenning, Vern Pax, Rochelle Sudman and Austin Tester stand for a photo. The four eighth-grade students will be placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during their trip to D.C. next week.

ST. MARYS — A St. Marys native went back to school to speak about his experience as a soldier with a unique duty to eighth-grade students on Friday at St. Marys Middle School.

La Vern “Vern” Pax visited all the eighth-grade middle school students in their social studies class periods on Friday, explaining what his duties were as a member of the Honor Guard.

“We leave Monday night for Washington, D.C., and in anticipation of that, we do have a special guest here today at St. Marys Middle School,” St. Marys Middle School Principal Mary Miller told the students in Bill Ruane’s and Jonathan Beougher’s social studies classes Friday morning. “Mr. Vern Pax was a 1953 graduate of Memorial High School here in St. Marys, where he played Roughrider football. He is here today to speak with us because after he graduated, he joined the Army and he was chosen to serve as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during 1957 and 1958, and so it’s a great opportunity for us to have him here today and talk about his experiences there and to give you a little bit of an idea of what we’re going to see when we are there next week.”

On Friday, Pax told the students he was drafted into the Army in 1956, and he went through basic training at Fort Carson in Colorado.

“From there, they sent me to Washington, D.C. — they thought I had a chance to make it in the Honor Guard, and after I was there about 30 days and going through training and different inspections they selected me to be in the Honor Guard,” he said.

Pax noted the Honor Guard helps with the caissons, or the burials, and with 21-gun salutes.

“They selected me to be a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I stayed there for 18 months until I was discharged in October 1958,” he said.

Pax showed the students a video of when he was part of the Guard in summer 1958 — which noted the 21 steps featured in the soldier’s march in front of the tomb, the changing of the guard and Pax’s march on Memorial Day 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon added Korea and World War II to the tomb, which already featured World War I.

“I was selected to be the guard on duty when they added Korea and World War II,” Pax said.

Differences in the changing of the guard from when Pax was on duty and now, Pax said, include longer inspections and a slower pace.

“Today, they walk a lot slower,” he said. “They call it a death walk, but when I was there we walked a lot faster.”

Each guard would stay on duty for one hour — today, the guards change every half hour, Pax noted.

“There were reliefs,” he said. “There were five guys in each relief and the sergeant of the guard — four would be on duty, and the fifth guy would be gone on a three or five-day pass. The first relief would walk one day, 24 hours and then they would have two days off. On their two days off, the other reliefs would walk.”

Miller noted the guards have been outside the tomb since 1930.

“The tomb has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day since 1930,” she said. “So someone has been on duty every minute of every day since 1930, so if there was a thunderstorm, at one time there was a hurricane in Washington, D.C. — the guards kept working — they do commit to being out there in all kinds of dangerous weather.”

On his days off, Pax noted he went to night college at Maryland University while he was in D.C.

While they were on 24-hour duty, the soldiers would stay at Arlington National Cemetery in the amphitheater. When they were off duty, the soldiers stayed in Fort Myer, Va.

“You’d always wear a complete new set of uniform before you go back on,” Pax noted. “I walked four times in one day — be on duty one hour and be off three hours to get ready to go back on. At night, you’re out there two hours, but you’re not at rigid attention at night.”

In the event of danger, the soldier could give a signal and 15 to 25 guards would be out at the tomb.

By being a part of the Honor Guard, soldiers are committed to being upstanding citizens, Pax noted. There is a list of names of people who have been a part of the Guard, and some of them have been removed.

“I can lose it, too,” he said of the Honor Guard badge he wears — he is one of approximately 500 citizens who have received such badge. “They’re not supposed to drink, swear and use bad language, if I get picked up for drunk driving or get a felony, there will be two men knocking at my door wanting my credentials, and my name would be taken off the board.”

In 2008, the Army invited Pax and his family back to lay a wreath on the tomb for the anniversary of when he was on duty for when Korea and World War II were added to the memorial. He showed the students a video of his family’s trip and when he and his son and daughter and grandchildren put wreaths on the tomb in 2008.

“A week from today, four of our kids will be laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Miller told The Evening Leader. “This is a way for them to get an understanding of what the tomb means and the solemn feeling associated with the tomb and Arlington (National Cemetery).”

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