For six years, Army Staff Sgt. Adam Dickmyer was a "sentinel," one of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
He was one of the elite Old Guard, the select soldiers who, in rotation, bear silent witness every minute of every day, in all kinds of weather, honoring the unknown soldiers who died on foreign battlefields.
It was something he took seriously.
Dickmyer spoke to Robert Poole for Poole's book, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, which was published last year. He explained the Old Guard's mission with a poignant simplicity.
"We want the guys who sacrificed everything to know that they are still remembered, that someone still cares," he said.
Sometimes, his duties took him away from Arlington. Dickmyer was lead pallbearer for Sen. Ted Kennedy last year. He was with the casket every step of the way, from Hyannis Port to the Kennedy library to the Mission Church. Tens of thousands of people from Massachusetts and beyond would have seen Dickmyer or passed close to him, but they wouldn't have known who he was.
Hundreds of thousands would have watched him over the years at the Tomb of the Unknowns as he faced the tomb for 21 seconds then marched 21 steps, a ceremony of remembrance practiced over and over again. But none of those tourists would have known his name.
Dickmyer was part of one of the most distinguished units in the Army. Less than 20 percent who try out make the Old Guard. Still, he volunteered for combat duty, leaving the Old Guard for the 2nd Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. In June, his unit arrived in Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment. On Oct. 28, Dickmyer dismounted from his armored vehicle and was on foot patrol in Kandahar when a hidden bomb exploded, killing him. He was 26.
He was just the third sentinel killed in action. Two others, Staff Sgt. William Spates Jr. and Sgt. Marvin Franklin, were killed in Vietnam.
Dickmyer was the first of five soldiers out of Fort Campbell in Kentucky to be killed in Afghanistan in five days. The day after he died, Spc. Pedro Maldonado, 20, was killed by grenades and gunfire. A day later, Spc. Brett Land, 24, was killed, like Dickmyer, by an IED.
Four days after Dickmyer was killed, a guy on a motorcycle drove up to the 2nd Brigade's base. Spc. Jonathan Curtis, 24, a great kid, and Pfc. Andrew Meari, 21, were on guard duty and stopped the motorcycle, preventing it from entering the base. In doing so, they saved many lives, but lost their own when the guy on the motorcycle detonated the explosives he was wearing.
The war in Afghanistan is the ultimate war of the unknown soldier. So few Americans have their own flesh and blood in harm's way. So few think of the war on a daily basis. The war trundles on, unknown to so many.
They remembered Jonathan Curtis this month, just as they remembered Adam Dickmyer, the face of the unknowns, who had been seen by so many and known by so few, at the cemetery where he stood in silent witness before he went off to war. Dickmyer's cortege was escorted by Army Capt. Mark Boyle, whose uncle, Larry Ronan, was Ted Kennedy's doctor. Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicki, was there, too, as Dickmyer's widow, Melinda, accepted a tightly folded flag.
"It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud," the sentinel's creed reads. "Surrounded by well-meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance."
© 2010 Boston Globe