Once he was cast as an extra playing a soldier in a major movie, Ethan Morse was finally pursuing his dream of making it big in Hollywood. However, little did he know that an impromptu visit to Arlington National Cemetery would alter his trajectory from portraying a soldier on-screen to being a soldier in real life.
Morse was filming Gods and Generals in the Washington, D.C., region when a friend suggested that they pay a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Having grown up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, Morse was familiar with Arlington National Cemetery but hadn’t heard about the tomb dedicated to unidentified service members killed in war.
“I often got emotional when I talked about it, because it was something I'd never seen before in my life. Especially not back on the farm,” he said. “We watched two guard changes. I was overcome by emotion. I love to talk, and after we left there, I couldn't talk for a number of hours.”
A call to action
Morse had always told his family that he would never join the military unless the U.S. was attacked. So when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, the then-21-year-old went to the Army recruiter’s office and put his film dreams on pause.
“I barely had my uniforms issued to me, and a sergeant walked in, and he was recruiting from all the infantry guys there to go to Arlington,” Morse said. “I was hoping maybe I’ll just get assigned to the tomb. Little did I know that that’s not how it works.”
Instead, he was assigned to be a casket bearer and had to train for two months, lifting weights, carrying rock-filled caskets and practicing flag folding.
“Each soldier was practiced and trained to perfection. I was really overcome with the responsibility of burying the fallen. And it was very humbling to be there,” he said.
After about 13 months as a casket bearer for over 300 burials, Morse’s platoon sergeant approached him with his new assignment, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
A serious mistake
Tomb guards ceremoniously march 21 steps down a black mat behind the tomb, turn, face east for 21 seconds, and then turn and face north for 21 seconds. They then take 21 steps down the mat to repeat the process. The number 21 symbolizes the highest military honor, the 21-gun salute.
Before a tomb guard, also known as a sentinel, starts duty for the day, he or she must pass a detailed white-glove inspection by a commander.
“For 18 months, I was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [and] no one that I know ever failed an inspection — except for me one day,” he said.
It was a humid summer day when Morse walked out of the tomb quarters with a dirty weapon. His close friend and mentor, Staff Sgt. Adam Dickmyer, took one swipe across the weapon to find that his glove was dirty.
“I’ve made one of the cardinal sins that sent [me] back from the inspection block,” Morse said. “I was crying. I was at the bottom. I thought I was going to be released.”
Instead, Dickmyer, who had helped Morse through some of his most difficult moments of training, ordered him to go back and get a new rifle.
A solemn return to film
Come 2006, Morse’s Army enlistment was up and he knew it was time to return to pursuing his childhood dreams. He moved out to Hollywood and began working in the movie industry again.
Shortly after, he received news that Dickmyer was killed on deployment in Afghanistan and was going to be buried back at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It's gonna be like a reunion, all descending back into Arlington National Cemetery. But it wasn't a happy reunion,” Morse said. “There was no joy there. We’re there burying a tomb guard, our friend."
Meanwhile, the Society of the Honor Guard, a nonprofit organization whose members include current and former tomb guards, asked Morse if he would be interested in making a memorial video for Dickmyer. But instead of making a short video to honor him, Morse chose to make a whole documentary that showed the love and sacrifice that tomb guards provide the unknown soldiers.
After over six months of filming and winning the best feature film award at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival, the project grew into a four-part docuseries about the different platoons at the cemetery.
“I think what the tomb now represents for soldiers everywhere — they'll go to the tomb to remember the fallen, and we're just making sure that the fallen know that they've got a buddy that's there with them 24 hours a day,” Morse said.
This is the second episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.