A former Judson High School student who’s seen three combat tours considers his current service as an elite sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier one of his proudest Army achievements.
More than three months ago, Staff Sgt. Justin Courtney became a full-fledged sentinel at the historic Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, joining a select group protecting one of America’s most iconic military memorials.
In addition, the Class of 2005 alum was awarded the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge No. 660, signifying the total number of U.S. soldiers honored with such a duty.
“I was serving as a squad leader with a soldier that used to be a guard at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier,” Courtney said. “I found it interesting that people would ask him about the badge on his chest that showed he had served as a guard of the Tomb.”
He researched the assignment and became interested.
“It convinced me to try it,” he added.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in 1921 with the interment of an unidentified American serviceman slain in World War I. The Tomb memorializes all U.S. military killed in combat whose names remain undiscovered, often due to severe disfigurement from wounds.
To become a sentinel at the Tomb is one of the rarest recognitions in the armed forces, regardless of service branch, according to officials. They guard the site year-round, 24 hours a day and in all weather conditions without exception, according to the Army.
The sentinels serve a symbolic and practical purpose, representing constant vigilance in remembering the war dead, as well as physically guarding the tomb.
Courtney enlisted in 2009 as an infantryman and served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division.
His mother, Shelly Talamantez of Universal City, said her son’s military career has surpassed her expectations.
“When I chose my son’s name after his birth, I felt like it sounded powerful and important,” said Talamantez. “I joked that someday he might be the president. … I am beyond proud of his appointment as a sentinel at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
His wife, Liz, said her husband embodies the spirit of all U.S. troops.
“I am incredibly proud for all the rigorous work he had to do to earn his badge,” she said. “Although being a Tomb guard is an honorable position, I am more grateful and proud of my husband for serving his country on three separate deployments.”
When Justin Courtney volunteered for sentinel duty, he was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Regiment in Virginia — “The Old Guard” — to try and earn a position.
According to the Army, becoming a sentinel requires extensive training with meticulous attention to detail involving physical and mental endurance; extensive memorization of ceremony, protocol and history; and the ability to remain stoic and focused in extreme weather conditions.
Just to be considered, a soldier must meet standards of height and weight, have a spotless military record, and undergo an initial four-week cycle merely to merit additional training.
The advanced scrutiny revolves around three difficult tests.
“Each time the margin of error gets smaller,” Courtney said.
With a 90 percent attrition rate, the process is unrelenting, the soldier noted.
“We measure everything (such as uniform and equipment) up to 1/64 of an inch, which is about the length of a fingernail,” he said.
Despite the rigor, the job is worth it, he added.
“The most moving part about this is seeing the old World War II vets come here and watch the ceremony,” Courtney said. “They stand up from their wheelchair and salute while taps is being played.”
Service members hold a special place in their hearts for the Tomb, military officials said.
“It’s important because it is a centralized location where loved ones can come grieve for any soldier that never came home alive,” Courtney said. “In Arlington National Cemetery, there are 4,723 unknowns buried. It is physically impossible for someone who lost a loved one in war to go to every one of these grave sites to pay their respects.”
Courtney believes all Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country should be honored, whether known or unknown.
“They gave their lives for the freedoms we so easily take for granted every day,” Courtney said. “We have freedom to make everyday choices. We can choose to be successful or we can choose to be a bum. … It’s up to you. Those people gave their life for you to have that freedom. They set aside their own interests and sacrificed everything for us.”
Courtney’s badge number will be inscribed on a nearby memorial commemorating all guardians of the Tomb.
“I am just so proud of him,” said the sentinel’s father, Bryan Courtney. “He is just a fantastic soldier. His name will be remembered always.”