Former tomb guard rings in American Legion's 95th birthday

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | 11:52 p.m. CDT; updated 6:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, March 20, 2014
First Lt. Ryan Ball spoke at the American Legion's Annual Birthday Party on Wednesday night about his experience as a guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. He demonstrated a specialized form of the manual of arms during his speech at Herbert Williams American Legion Post 202.

COLUMBIA — Ryan Ball, a first lieutenant in the Army, teared up as he recounted his last changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. He remembered putting three roses on the tomb, one for each man laid to rest there.

Ball, originally from Centralia, joined the Army as an infantryman in 2002 after graduating from high school. He was assigned to the Honor Guard company. In 2003, he began training as a guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and earned his Tomb Guard Identification Badge — the least-awarded badge in the military. Only 621 of the awards have been given since its inception in 1958. His is number 522.

Veterans filled the tables at Herbert Williams American Legion Post 202 to celebrate the American Legion's 95th birthday and hear Ball speak.

Paul Hobbs, commander of the post, said he always tries to get a speaker for its birthday celebration. Because Ball's schedule is so closely tied to the brigadier general's busy agenda, Hobbs said he did not know if Ball would be able to make the event until a few days before.

After serving three years at the tomb, Ball was hand-chosen by Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler, the chief of the Military Police Corps Regiment, to serve as his personal aide. He has served on active duty for almost eight years, including a nine-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. He now lives on Fort Leonard Wood with his family, and he spoke of his time as a tomb guard with anecdotes and a few emotional moments.

Since the establishment of the guard at the tomb in July 1937, soldiers have patrolled it 24/7, even in inclement weather. When Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003, for instance, Ball was on duty.

Weather isn't the only thing tomb guards worry about. They can be dismissed from duty if they make mistakes such as dropping their weapons while guarding the tomb. If that happens, Ball said, they can expect to be packing their bags within a few hours.

He also dispelled some common myths: Women do, in fact, serve in the guard, and tomb guards are allowed to drink and swear, though not while guarding the tomb.

Ball said that though the guard's weapons are not loaded, tomb guards are prepared to stop anybody who crosses the chain. In the history of the guard, there has only been one incident where physical force was necessary.

Knowing of Ball's love of golf, Dale Roberts, executive director of the Columbia Police Officer's Association, presented him with golf balls at the end of his talk.

On behalf of state Rep. Stephen Webber, Roberts also presented Ball with the state flag that had flown above the state capitol building. Jan Hobbs, the wife of Paul Hobbs, presented Ball with a Quilt of Valor named "21 Steps" for the number of steps guards take every time they pass the tomb.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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