Color flushed into Sgt. Adam Dickmyer’s face as he breathed heavily. Through tinted sunglasses he sternly gazed at Spec. Ethan Morse, a Soldier of skinny build, on a muggy summer afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006.
Ethan held his weapon, smudged and covered in rain, and presented it before his squad leader during a changing of the guard inspection.
The Soldier knew instantly that he made a grave mistake. “I was super scared,” Ethan said.
Soldiers considered such an act a cardinal sin for the sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside of Washington, D.C. During training, sergeants at the Tomb drill into them perfection: creaseless uniforms, sharp cadences and spotless weapons in inspections.
In this simple way the Tomb guards honor the fallen, unidentified U.S. service members from each major war in their appearance, in their movements and in how they steadily watch over the Tomb grounds.
With white gloved hands, Dickmyer grasped his Soldier’s M14 rifle forcefully and the gun strap lightly tapped Ethan’s nose. Dickmyer glanced at the rifle and then sharply ordered Ethan to return to guard quarters beneath the Tomb’s stone amphitheater and retrieve a clean weapon.
Embarrassed, Ethan hurried back with the M14, his heart pounding as he climbed the steps. A Soldier who prided himself on upholding the rigid standards of The Old Guard, Dickmyer earned the admiration of his peers for his intense dedication. He attended junior ROTC in high school and planned on making the Army a career.
Some Soldiers remarked that Dickmyer, with the way he barked orders and demanded perfection, would have been the ideal drill sergeant had he ever elected to apply.
Standing over 6 feet tall with a stacked build, Dickmyer’s bellowing voice echoed throughout the plaza during guard changes, capturing onlookers’ attention. “You could hear his strength,” Ethan said.
Dickmyer would never have the chance to become a drill sergeant.
Dickmyer’s demeanor admittedly frightened Ethan, but he acknowledged he respected his squad leader for it. Dickmyer later ordered Ethan the disciplinary pushups and exercises that evening, which the specialist willingly submitted.
His peers described the North Carolina native as “the perfect Soldier,” one who could mentor a squad member with keen sensitivity one moment but could be a strict disciplinarian the next. Ethan said he also had a robust sense of humor that came out during unit barbecues.
Ethan would go on to earn his Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge, the coveted silver wreath earned by only a select few in The Old Guard. Ethan said that without Dickmyer’s mentoring, he would not have completed his arduous six-month training as a Tomb guard.
Dickmyer continued to his next assignment as a casket leader for the Joint Services State Funeral Team in 2007, guiding the funeral procession of Sen. Ted Kennedy in August 2009. However Dickmyer wanted to develop his leadership abilities in combat.
After being promoted to staff sergeant, he received his chance during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. Within a few weeks, he earned the confidence of his company commander, who deemed Dickmyer ready to lead a platoon in the turbulent western provinces of the country.
Ethan left the Army in October 2006 to attend film school and pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.
Four years later, Ethan, now separated from active duty, had been taking college courses in Southern California when a former squad member called his cell on a fall day.
The ex-Soldier, now in Chicago, told Ethan that an improvised explosive device had killed Dickmyer in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. He was 26.
The news hit Ethan hard.
“Never expected anything like that,” Ethan said. “Because he was larger than life, you know? I mean, he was just so strong; so commanding; such a great leader. I always thought he would be there.”
Dickmyer became the third Tomb guard to die in combat while serving in the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Ethan had to ponder his own mortality and the fragility of life. He carried Dickmyer’s memory with him into his filmmaking career.
Dickmyer’s death became the inspiration behind the new documentary series, “Honor Guard,” produced by Ethan and written and directed by his friend and fellow Tomb guard, Neal Schrodetzki. The series features The Old Guard, or the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, and takes an in-depth glance into their training, lifestyle and preparation.
The pair chronicled the units and special duties of the regiment — from the historic tradition of the horse-drawn caisson, to the iconic changing of the guard.
The first episode focuses on the Soldiers who helm the caisson and learn to become equestrians, while the second episode, titled “The Regiment,” explores the history of The Old Guard and follows a Soldier through the unit’s orientation phase. The producers dedicated the third episode to the Army Drill Team and finally the fourth episode, “Full Honors,” features casket bearers who perform funeral services for presidents, politicians and U.S. troops.
Hollywood legend Sam Elliott narrates the miniseries, which paints an intimate portrait of one of the nation’s oldest military units. The series premieres on Christmas Day with four, one-hour episodes available to stream on Amazon and will eventually be released on Apple TV, Google Play, Tubi and others. Ethan and Neal made a dedication to Dickmyer as well as other former guard members in the credits of each episode.
“My hope is that [viewers] understand that our taxpayer dollars actually go to something greater than each of us,” Ethan said from his office near Long Beach, California. “I really hope that they see the fact that there are men and women today, right now, who are working in Arlington, the hardest they can.
“And we will continue to honor our fallen.”
Soldiers in The Old Guard train under immense pressure. To fail a training test meant retesting and if they fell short again, Soldiers risked being removed from the special duty and sent back to their original units.
When Ethan failed to pass his uniform inspection and a knowledge test on one spring day in 2006, Dickmyer pulled Ethan aside in a temporary shelter at Arlington.
Get more rest, Dickmyer advised him, so he could keep his mind sharp and he’d perform his best. The sergeant assured Ethan that he wouldn’t fail again.
He remembered that Dickmyer always pushed his Soldiers to do more, whether running an extra mile or enduring another pushup. He encouraged him to earn his expert infantryman’s badge and apply to the Soldier of the Month board, so that Ethan could add a respectable amount of accolades in his three-year enlistment.
Ethan reflected on the memories he shared with his squad leader during a ten-hour flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 2010. He bonded with Dickmyer during 24-hour shifts manning the Tomb, which sentinels watch over 365 days a year.
A Soldier returns home
Dickmyer joined the 400,000 buried in Arlington’s 624 acres, the same group the staff sergeant had honored countless times through ceremony.
During his years with The Old Guard, Ethan performed more than 300 burials. He understood the pressure and responsibility that came with the somber task, but he’d learned to block out the faces of family members so he could focus on his cadences and manual movements.
He couldn’t block them out in that moment.
Ethan recalled the funeral as surreal. He saw faces he had not seen in years on that November day, but it was under the gravest of circumstances.
“It was like a reunion,” said Ethan, now a 38-year old member of the California National Guard. “All of us from third relief [squad at the Tomb] were back there. Here’s 12 of your best friends that you spent so much time and so many years with. But … we weren’t laughing. We weren’t joking. It wasn’t a good time.”
He briefly spotted Dickmyer’s widow, Melinda, who he had known when Ethan attended nearby McLean Baptist Church with the couple while on active duty.
Ethan struggles to remember the details of the ceremony or the Soldiers clad in dress blues who performed the honors, once so familiar and routine to him. He doesn’t recall much of the flag presentation, the playing of taps or the lowering of Dickmyer’s casket.
“It was a weird mix of emotions,” Ethan said. “It’s very hard to describe actually, because those 300 funerals that I’d done before … they weren’t for my friends.”
Ethan and Neal wanted to commemorate Dickmyer’s life in film.
And they paid tribute to Dickmyer’s short military career and achievements that included a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Meritorious Service Medal.
Neal made the family aspect of the Old Guard a recurring theme in “Honor Guard” and in the way he honored Dickmyer toward the end of the “The Unknowns,” a separate 84-minute documentary that explores the lives of the Soldiers who watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Neal didn’t grieve Dickmyer’s death in the same way. But after reflecting on his four years with The Old Guard he developed a greater appreciation for his former squad leader.
“It was this really sort of deep connection that I have with him,” said Neal, now 35. “I’m really not a talkative guy and I just kind of did my job. And that was really his personality, too.”
Neal became one of the most experienced Soldiers serving in The Old Guard servicing more than 1,200 funerals in three years as a casket bearer. Dickmyer developed such confidence in the then-20-year-old specialist that Dickmyer told Neal he’d consider him to be his replacement as squad leader at the Tomb.
“While there were things that were abrasive about his personality, he definitely taught us a lot about just getting up and going to work and doing what needs to be done,” Neal said. “He is an inspiration for me now, because at the time, I just didn’t even appreciate his leadership.”
Neal, however, would later suffer an abdominal injury that required surgery and he left the Army in the spring of 2007 to attend film school at Arizona State University that fall.
Filmmaking had been bred into Neal at an early age. Neal recalls carrying a video camera with him throughout his high school’s halls, asking fellow students questions and splicing together homemade films.
The Iraq War bore its impact into Ethan. Both enlisted in 2003 while America began its invasion of the Middle Eastern country. Motivated by swelling patriotism, Ethan joined the Army’s infantry. Neal did the same for the challenge of serving on the front lines and as a means to pay for college.
The pair became casket bearers at the Old Guard before joining third relief at the Tomb.
Ethan kept track of the dead through news reports online, but chose not to research the names or backgrounds of the Soldiers at funerals or those whose caskets he helped transport from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Arlington.
This way, he could maintain his bearing and remain unshaken by the tragedy or the despair of the families. They performed countless burial rites, not just for Iraq veterans but those from Vietnam, Korea, and the Gulf War.
Once, Ethan performed a ceremony before no one, as they laid to rest a World War II veteran, who had no family to mourn him, no close friends to watch his remains descend into the earth.
“We felt like we were his family,” Ethan said.
From Arlington to Hollywood
Ethan, who grew up on a farm in rural upstate New York, had his sights set on a career in filmmaking. He had played a Confederate and Union Soldier during the filming of “Gods and Generals” in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. He became enamored in the world of movie production.
However, the war on terror ignited a sense of patriotism within him. An October 2001 visit to Arlington during a break from filming reaffirmed it.
“It was a month after 9/11 happened, it was surreal,” he said. “You could see the damage at the Pentagon. I was blown away.”
Ethan requested a recommendation to apply to be a Tomb guard after he learned he would not be deploying as a member of an infantry unit. Ethan and Neal would later meet at third relief.
The pair quickly formed a bond at there, even sharing an apartment just outside of the installation. Neal, although three years younger than Ethan, often looked out for him when he struggled with training and defended him against ribbing from senior Tomb guards. After both separated from the Army, they kept in touch after Ethan moved to California and Neal studied in his home state of Arizona.
As a producer for a local news program in Los Angeles, Ethan helped Neal land a position as a writer and producer at the TV station following his graduation from ASU in 2011. Shortly after, the pair formed their own film company called Time to Kill Productions.
They kept in the back of their minds the sacrifice of their former squad leader, who inspired the creation of their first venture into filmmaking, “The Unknowns.”
“[Dickmyer] is just always with us,” Ethan said. “So [the documentaries] were always for Dickmyer. And it’s just something that … was so personal. Our relationship with him kind of personalizes this whole production and project.”
“The Unknowns” features a three-minute dedication to Dickmyer, with archived footage filmed by Neal, of Dickmyer and Ethan during Ethan’s last walk. Each Soldier leaving duty at the Tomb makes a final ceremonial walk, where the Soldier returns to the Tomb plaza to lay a rose at each crypt that represent the unknowns who perished in major U.S. conflicts.
That day, with his grandmother, Beatrice, and sister, Karen, and other family in attendance, Ethan paid his final respects to the Unknowns, the unnamed Soldiers who died fighting for this country. He saw Dickmyer alive for the last time shortly after.
Ethan and Neal made the “The Unknowns” and the “Honor Guard” series as a remembrance for the late Soldier they considered a friend and mentor.
Many former Soldiers who Dickmyer had mentored made online tributes and messages following his passing. October 28th marked the 10th anniversary of his death.
On the Society of the Honor Guard website, a former Guard member wrote on Dickmyer’s dedication page: “You were a good leader and a good friend. You are missed by everyone. Thank you for seeing my potential and encouraging me to push forward. We’ll take it from here, brother.”
Editor’s note: The “Honor Guard” documentary series premieres on Christmas Day with four, one-hour episodes available to stream on Amazon and will eventually be released on Apple TV, Google Play, Tubi and others.