Digging the Tomb out of the archives
If you don’t mind, we’re going to dip into the archives again for today’s message.
This was one of the most fun columns I had the pleasure to write. I was tipped off by somebody at LSU that Army Spc. Benton Thames might be worth talking to. And he certainly was.
There seemed to be a lot of red tape involved with an Army public affairs officer before I was granted a telephone interview, even though I assured her I had in mind something of a feel-good story and not The Pentagon Papers, Part II.
Thames was a wonderful interview. He’s not longer in the military and while I keep up with him on social media, I never actually met him in person. Just two phone interviews.
Anyway. This ran on May 2, 2008 in the wake of LSU’s 38-24 victory over Ohio State for the BCS national championship.
To your average LSU fan, the idea of “sacrifice” to watch the Tigers’ national championship victory over Ohio State meant over-extending the budget on tickets or a hi-def TV.
Tell it to Army Spc. Benton Thames.
And hold the hanky.
Of course, Thames’ job description is all about the kind of sacrifice few football fans could ever imagine.
A Denham Springs native and lifelong, devout LSU fan, Thames is one of the select few entrusted with guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Fewer than 20 percent of the soldiers who apply can cut it. Since the round-the-clock guard was started in 1937, there has been an armed guard at the crypt every single minute of every single day.
Yet when Thames earned his tomb guard identification badge about a month ago, he was only the 567th soldier in history to have been able to pin it smartly over his right pocket. “It’s the rarest badge in the military,” Thames said.
Oh, if he’d only had it on Jan. 7. Back then he was still in training. So Thames’ LSU story really begins just before the start of the national championship game, when one of Thames’ relief commanders claimed to hear an “All-RIGHT!” in the background when the Tigers won the coin toss.
Thames denies it. But this was down in the tomb quarters, a comfortable bunker-like dwelling under the tomb where the sentinels are allowed to relax between shifts outside.
Relax, that is, if they have the badge. If they’re in training, well, they’re in training, mostly in front of a mirror where they work on the discipline that allows them to never flinch or otherwise show emotion while honoring the three unknown soldiers buried there.
There’s a television down there — for the badges. The trainees, however, are not allowed to look directly at it or to react to anything that happens on it.
“Basically you’re not allowed to acknowledge that it’s there,” Thames recalled. So it was a tough night to be a Tigers fan/sentinel trainee.
Perhaps the most grueling drill in the training is the “Ready One” position.” Go ahead, try it at home sometime. Extend your arm straight out, palms up. Put the butt end of a 9 1/2-pound M-14 rifle in the palm of your hand, then grip it with your fingers so that the rifle, with a cumbersome bayonet on the end, sticks straight up, making a perfect — and they mean PERFECT — 90-degree angle between arm and rifle.
Now hold it. And hold it. And hold it some more, no matter how heavy 9 1/2 pounds starts feeling.
Thames’ personal best was about 20 minutes. The best anybody could remember anybody doing it was about 30 minutes.
So, of course, with LSU lining up to kick off to Ohio State and a huge Tigers fan in the midst unable to pay attention to it, the relief commander came up with a compromise.
Thames could watch the game, even show appropriate emotion — so long as he held the Ready One position and that perfect 90-degree angle.
Better than nothing, he figured.
So, ten-hut! He held it through Ohio State’s early 10-0 lead, perhaps wondering if this was worth it.
He held on when LSU finally got on the board with Colt David’s 32-yard field goal, and the rifle was still sticking straight up early in the second quarter when Matt Flynn’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Richard Dickson tied the score.
“You really start to hate the commercials,” Thames said.
But he held on through them too, and he was still hanging in there when Rickey Jean-Francois blocked the Buckeyes’ field goal attempt that set up LSU’s go-ahead touchdown.
He was in another world by the time Jacob Hester’s third try from the 1-yard line gave LSU a 24-10 lead just before halftime.
And Thames, his biceps throbbing, was thinking about how long bowl halftimes traditionally last.
There he got a break. Having already held up almost two hours — far, far longer than anybody around Arlington could remember it done — the relief commander let him put the rifle down briefly during halftime.
But when Ohio State kicked off to open the second half, it was back to Ready One, back to mind over pain if he wanted to watch the Tigers.
He was in the full dress uniform of the sentinels, which meant the outer belt around the starched jacket was pulled far too tight for comfort (it looks neater that way, the brass say) and excruciating after a while. The first thing sentinels do when their hour shift is up and they’re out of public view is loosen that foul contraption.
But the full-dress uniform was part of Thames’ deal to watch the Tigers play, so he didn’t squirm as that blasted belt turned into a torture device.
Meanwhile, Early Doucet was side-stepping past a baffled Buckeyes secondary for a 31-10 LSU lead.
“By that time I was really hurting,” Thames remembered.
But he held on, struggling, sweating, almost seeing stars until finally, just before the end of the third quarter, he gave out after almost three hours.
The relief commanders were so impressed with Thames’ uncanny stamina and determination, they allowed him to sit down and watch the fourth quarter.
At ease, soldier.
But Thames admits he was still a little dizzy by the time the confetti fell on the Superdome floor and Flynn was hoisting that crystal football toward the heavens.
Thames knew another tomb soldier in another relief who was a big Ohio State fan, so like any good Tigers fan he called the next day to rag him about the previous night.
But the best was yet to come.
When Thames reported for work on Monday, April 7, he was a little disappointed that his duties would prevent him from getting over to the White House when the LSU team visited to be honored by President Bush.
But there’s more to being a sentinel than the 21 steps back and forth on the mat in front of the tomb, the heel-click turns and steely-eyed, straight-ahead 21-second stares between them.
They also serve as tour guides to groups and generally hang around to answer questions.
And when he got to work that Monday, Thames learned that the Fighting Tigers would be visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier the next day. And they’d need a tour guide.
“It was not a coincidence that I got that duty,” Thames laughed. “It was a blast. Coach Miles was really great. Jacob Hester let me try on his (national championship) ring. Glenn Dorsey was huge.”
Thames told the Tigers the thing he missed most about Louisiana was watching them play in person.
Maybe not for long, however.
If he ever does gets home for a game in Tiger Stadium again, it’s been taken care of.
He’ll have a spot at the game — as Les Miles’ special guest on the sidelines.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org