On guard around-the-clock, twenty-four hours a day, three-sixty-five days a year—this has always been the routine for The Sentinels of the Tomb. A duty passed on from one generation of guard soldiers after another since the 1920s when the first batch of deceased “unknown” servicemen from World War I had been interred on the grounds of the new Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.

Members of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard” (TOG) or Tomb Guards, are soldiers responsible for sternly watching the sacred grave where thousands of unidentified fallen heroes lay to rest. “Snow, sleet, heat, wind, and rain…” these men, who passed the rigid selection process and intense training to become Honor Guards, never gave up the guard and have kept the unwavering duty since 1937.

And among these distinguished servicemen was Spencer Hardney, a former TOG soldier who recently shared his experience as part of the dedicated Tomb Guards of the Unknown.

Destined To Be An Honor Guard

Hardney grew up on a farm in Mississippi, spending his childhood throughout the 70s and 80s. He briefly attended college only to realize that it wasn’t how he wanted to be spending his time, so he went home. He worked two jobs, and when that didn’t take him anywhere as well, he decided to take a similar path his father and older brother took—as a military man.

In the summer of 1986, Hardney reported to Fort Drum, New York, after receiving an outstanding mark on the ASVAB test. There, he would excel and move up the ranks as a rifleman, and it would take another five years before he was promoted to staff sergeant. He was then sent to Korea as a squad leader before returning to the stateside—to Fort Benning, Georgia—to become a drill sergeant.

While in Fort Benning, Hardney met a recruiter for the revered 3rd US Infantry Regiment at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBM-HH). He would go on to serve as a platoon sergeant for the First Presidential Marching Platoon and as a sergeant of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Honor Guard.

Honor Guard 1999
Sgt. 1st Class Spencer Hardney, front left, and other 3d US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Honor Guard Soldiers pose for a group photo in 1999 at the Lincoln Memorial. (Image source: DVIDS)

As platoon sergeant for First Presidential Marching Platoon, I marched in every ceremony for Department of the Army general officers, especially the White House missions,” Hardney recounted. “As sergeant of the guard, my primary job was taking care of all the sentinels and their families, and I did all the VIP wreaths – the presidential wreaths and all the high-ranking dignitaries that came to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to lay a wreath.”

Later, Hardney went to work for the intergovernmental military alliance NATO in Heidelberg, Germany, where he will once again be promoted, this time to first sergeant. He would eventually return to JBM-HH as part of Delta Company and Honor Guard before ending up at Fort Belvoir as a senior enlisted advisor, where he would spend the rest of his military career before retiring as an executive program officer in June 2006.

Found Purpose and Pride

Unlike his father, who served in the Navy, and older brother, who briefly joined the Army, only Hardney managed to retire from the service.

I said I was going to do three years. Then, three years turned into six, and I just kept going,” Hardney shared, adding that as the years passed, he became intrigued by life as a military man.

I had no idea what lay out there for me for the first three years and then beyond that, but I got the taste of it, and I was intrigued by it,” he said.

Indeed, being a Platoon Sergeant and Sergeant of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become Hardney’s most prized attainment and source of pride. However, the former Honor Guard have also expressed that working as a Drill Sergeant—getting kids off the street and helping them become the Soldiers this nation needs—gave him a different, way more fulfilling feeling.

It was everything to succeed and do well—to learn to be an effective member of the team and to contribute to the team,” Hardney said. “You learn to take the good with the bad. The good will get you further, but you also learn or remember the things that you didn’t like and that weren’t so productive, and you don’t bring those forward. At the end of the day, if you put your mind to something and give it 110%, you can be successful at anything.

On Building The Army of the Future: ‘More Representation in High-Ranks’

In the interview, Hardney imparted what he thinks could entice youth, particularly those from the Black community, into joining the military—representation in high-ranking positions.

I think they have to see a little bit more of the senior leadership positions. You see more Black generals now, and when you look at television, you have retired Gen. Lloyd Austin now as the Secretary of Defense and the things that he’s talking about,” Hardney said, who is also part of the African-American community.

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In addition, the former TOG also thinks the Army should highlight how becoming a serviceman/woman could improve one’s quality of life, “a way out of the struggles of poverty.”

“It’s not just for Black kids, but for all low-income and struggling families as well. Show them that they can come in, and it will provide them with some type of trade,” he said. “But it still takes the individual to be willing to take the first step. I think just showing them that there’s something in it for them, that they don’t have to do it for a lifetime, but they can do it to help get them to a better place.”

Finally, Hardney discussed how the Army could use The Old Guard to highlight the diversity of the service branch, given that the unit offers a plethora of specialties, from the Continental Color Guard to the Caissons to the Tomb of the Unknown.

He concluded his reflection by sharing his insight on the strength of the Army, which is its people.

If leadership tells you something, rather than have a negative response or being resistant about it, give it 110% to see if it works, and while you’re doing that, if you run into something that could be streamlined or made better, gather that information,” Hardney said.

It’s not about the strongest person, because at the end of the day, it’s not a one-person journey or a one-person Army,” Hardney said. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so it’s not about me and if I can run 2 miles in seven minutes, do 300 push-ups and 300 sit-ups or whatever. It’s about the average of the entire team.”

Watch behind-the-scenes footage of these Sentinels, who stood their ground 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to protect those who unwaveringly served and died for their country.