NOEL KING, HOST:
Several times a day, members of the Army's Old Guard play "Taps" at Arlington National Cemetery at a funeral or at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE PLAYING)
KING: That lone bugle can signify both the end of the day and also a time to reflect. In the middle of all of the partisan fighting in this country, this Memorial Day, we're going to take a few moments to reflect with Tom Cotton. Cotton was a platoon leader in the Old Guard. He served at Arlington between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tom Cotton is now a Republican U.S. senator, and he's written a book called "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour At Arlington National Cemetery." His book has nothing to do with politics. He told Rachel Martin that it was important to keep politics out of it when talking about Arlington.
TOM COTTON: It holds a special place in the hearts of our fellow citizens, that it's a place of unity and reconciliation, which is a bit of an irony because Arlington had its start in the Civil War, you know, a time in which Americans raised swords against each other - so much so that the Department of the Army had to take an old plantation across the river and turn it into a graveyard for our war dead because all the cemeteries in Washington were filling up. And I think probably because it had that origin in the ashes of the Civil War, as I describe in "Sacred Duty," that it has become an almost mythic place in the hearts of our fellow citizens.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Who are the people who serve in the Old Guard?
COTTON: It's a diverse group. It's men and women. It's young and old. Some of these are privates coming straight from basic training at age 18. They were - they were plucked out because they were tall and physically fit and had high test scores. And some of them are sergeant majors who have had six or seven deployments.
MARTIN: The precision is notable. You stand at attention. You don't move for 75 minutes sometimes. You're supposed to carry a sword till its tip is a certain distance from the ground. These are just a few examples. But what is the relationship between that kind of precision and honor?
COTTON: When a family comes into the cemetery, we want them to have that last perfect image of honor. And everything that an Old Guard soldier does - whether it's his level of physical fitness and, therefore, his image, the cleanliness and precision of his uniform, the way he marches, the way he and his fellow soldiers carry a casket or fire the three-round volley - it's all designed to ensure that the family is focused solely on their fallen hero and the military honors rendered to them.
MARTIN: This is very important work, clearly. It's very sober work. But can you describe something called fallouts?
COTTON: Yeah, so a fallout is when a soldier falls out of ceremony. We have what's called a supernumerary, which is Latin for one above the number. And he generally comes out with the formation and hides behind a nearby tree or bush. So he's there in case someone falls out. So for instance, I recall a very hot summer day in August of 2007 when I was standing in formation, and the last man in the first rank passed out standing up, fell like a tree that had been cut - just face planted, face forward.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
COTTON: Now, we're all trained for this. So he just laid there, and no one else moved. The assistant non-commissioned officer in charge came over and scooped him up underneath, by putting his hand under his ceremonial belt and dragged him off the field. And the supernumerary marches out in ceremonial form, picks up that soldier's rifle, stands back up and falls into formation.
COTTON: So you still have a perfect formation. It's an example of the level of detail that the Old Guard takes our ceremonial and our funeral planning to...
COTTON: ...That even for those very rare contingencies, when a soldier can't make it through a formation, that we have a plan in place to ensure that the ceremony or the funeral ends exactly as it would have even if nothing had happened.
MARTIN: You served in the Old Guard between two deployments. The United States was engaged in two wars at the time. And you saw, visibly, the cemetery change as a result of the remains that were coming home.
COTTON: I did, unfortunately. And I can see that today. In fact, I performed a group burial in October of 2007 for the crew and passengers of Easy 40, a Black Hawk helicopter shot down just outside of Baghdad earlier that year. And there are photos that you can see of me and the other Old Guard soldiers performing that funeral. And behind us is the eastern half of Section 60, where those killed in action in the war on terror are buried. And it's almost entirely green field.
And today if you go to the cemetery, you'll see that Section 60 is almost entirely filled with new headstones - not all from Iraq and Afghanistan but the lion's share. And that's a toll that is a reminder of us of just the kind of sacrifice that our warriors and their families have to lay down on the altar of freedom to keep this country free.
MARTIN: The book is called "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour At Arlington National Cemetery." It's written by Senator Tom Cotton.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
COTTON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.