PRINCETON — Not too long after he entered U.S. Army basic training, Private Nathan Thomas Cooper of Princeton filled out a form indicating that he would like to serve in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, better known as the Old Guard — the U.S. Army’s oldest continuously serving active duty regiment.
“It was just to be for soldiers who were 6-foot tall,” Cooper said during an interview at the Starbucks in Princeton on Saturday morning. Old Guard recruits also need to weigh between 150 and 180 pounds. He said that 19 soldiers in his basic training company met the basic qualifications.
“One of the guys that I took basic training with at Fort Benning was also selected for the Old Guard,” Cooper said. “There is also another soldier from Mercer County in the Old Guard now — Branton Woods, who graduated from PikeView High School a year ahead of me. I already knew him. When I got to Fort Myer, I went to his room, knocked on the door and when he opened it, he said: ‘What are you doing here?’ Can you believe it? Two soldiers in the Old Guard from Mercer County.”
The Old Guard was established in 1784 to serve as an escort for President George Washington and to conduct military graveside services to honor fallen comrades. Cooper began his assignment with the Old Guard, underwent intensive training and is now a member of a firing party that participates in graveside rites by firing the 21-volley salute. Other soldiers are especially trained as casket or urn bearers as well as other specialized roles in the burial ceremony. The Old Guard’s mission has grown to include serving as sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “We’re the representatives of the Army,” Cooper said.
Cooper said that only 628 badges have been awarded to Old Guard members who have served sentinel duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While sentinels perform a role that is possibly most visible to the public, Old Guard members perform many ceremonial roles. Cooper said that some soldiers in the Old Guard wear Continental Army uniforms and perform in the “Twilight Tattoo,” an hour-long presentation that uses a precision drill team, drum and fife corps, vocal groups military bands and other elements to tell the history of the U.S. military. “They tell the story from when soldiers fought with muskets all the way up to modern soldiers in full battle rattle,” he said.
“When I first found out that I had been selected to serve in the Old Guard, I was like, Whoa! Whoa!” Cooper, 19, said. “I never get selected for anything.”
Cooper started out in school at Glenwood, but his family moved to Charlotte, N.C., after he finished fourth grade before he moved back to Mercer County in 2012, and he graduated from Princeton Senior High School in 2013. Through his final year in school, he was uncertain as to what he wanted to do.
“I realized that college wasn’t for me so I tried to enlist in the Navy,” he said. “They wouldn’t take me because I had a tattoo that was too high on my chest. The Marines said the same thing. He said that a recruiter encouraged him to try the Army, and they accepted him.
The Old Guard’s training regimen is what Cooper had been searching for. “If you have a hair on your blouse (shirt), they tell you to do push-ups. I had to sew my uniform after I picked it up from Central Issue.” He said that he had to use Bic lighters to burn the fuzzies off of his wool uniform, and added that he had to get two haircuts each week, but now, he only has to get one haircut per week.
“You couldn’t take an average person and put them through that. I don’t think they could do it, but you can’t quit,” he said. “I don’t ask. I don’t know. I do what I’m told,” he said.
Cooper’s mother, Nicole Ellis, didn’t know what the Old Guard was until her son called to tell her about the assignment. “I was driving in my car, so I pulled over to look it up. I was just so thankful that he was selected.” Ellis said that one of her son’s grandfather’s was on a ship in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and that her dad’s brothers were all in the military. She said that members of the family have served in about every branch of the military.
Being stationed at Fort Myer in Washington, D.C., since April 28, has led to some interesting stories for Cooper. He said that he was on a date when he made a wrong turn and found himself in a line to enter the Pentagon at a gate that required a key card. “I was in uniform and told the guard that I was just looking for a Taco Bell. He told me there was a Taco Bell inside, but that I couldn’t go there and that I had to turn around. He was nice about it.”
Cooper said that he trains seven to eight hours per day. “There’s always a lot to do, and it all has to be perfect,” he said.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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