Michael C. Jankowski
Tomb PositionCommander of the Relief, Sentinel
Highest Military RankMaster Sergeant
Tomb DatesSep 1975 - Jun 1978
Military DatesJul 1966 - Jun 1991
Society MembershipLifetime Member
Home City / StateRoseville, MI
Current City / StateSun City, AZ
Tomb ReflectionsOne Sunday morning in the late spring or early summer of 1976, I was walking the 08:00 to 08:30 guard. The plaza was empty, the Relief Commander SSG. Kirby and relieved Sentinel had just left minutes before. I was standing at the south end of the mat facing towards north at left shoulder arms and the sun was shining warm in the east. The day looked like it was going to warm and clear. That meant lots of visitors. But not yet it was too early. Suddenly I heard footsteps approaching from my rear, out of my line of sight. It was a woman walking towards me. I knew it was a woman because of the sound of the footsteps. High-heeled shoes tapping on the granite is a very distinct sound. This lady stopped behind me. I could not see her, but I know that she was just several feet away stopped near the chains. In the 70’s the use of chains with 21 stands encircling the mat and the tomb were used as the barrier for visitors. As I finished my twenty-one second count, I stepped off for my short twenty-one step journey to the north end of the mat. This woman, who I never saw, followed just out of my view. I halted and completed my facing movement. She stood behind me again and then she spoke. “Thank You”. She said, sobbing. Then her footsteps faded off to the north, leaving the plaza. I completed that walk, never to see her face. The only trace of her visit was my memory of her emotional voice and one red carnation placed in one of the links of the chain at the north end of the plaza. I always wished I could have responded, but as you know that wasn’t possible. Looking back to that Sunday morning, I guess I did say, “You’re Welcome”. I was standing vigil at the Tomb. I hope it eased her obvious pain to know someone was there and that our fallen comrades were not forgotten.
Vietnam Unknown Soldier Memories:
My service in Vietnam was September 1968 thru September 1969 in the US Air Force as an aircraft mechanic otherwise known as a crew chief. The job entailed numerous types of aircraft maintenance to insure the operational readiness of RF-4C’s, a photo reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft and crew provided the combat troops on the ground, and the Air Force tactical and bomber units, the latest photo intelligence of enemy movements. With that said, I had no idea that someday, I would be in the United States Army assigned to the Old Guard and have the honor to be a member of the platoon that was responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Looking back at the events leading to this honor are many; some personal choices and some just fate.
Skipping all of my path to that point, I was honored to be assigned to the Second Relief in September of 1975. My Relief Commander was Staff Sergeant John C. Kirby; he and I were both Vietnam Veterans. We were about the same age and older than most on the soldiers on the relief. We both experienced being in a war zone and his experiences to war I am sure was more intense than mine, as he was in the Army and myself in the Air Force. When I was assigned to the platoon, there wasn’t a Vietnam Unknown and there wouldn’t be until years later in 1984. I have to admit during my two years and nine months at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, during the daytime when the cemetery was open to the public, I mostly would only think about doing the best job as humanly possible. But at night, in the quiet of the plaza, just you and the Unknowns, you have time to think about why you are guarding these fallen heroes. For me, thoughts of all the MIA’s, KIA’s and unidentifiable remains from Vietnam and if there would ever be an unknown selected from the Vietnam war had crossed my mind often. I did think about the honor of guarding a Vietnam Unknown, but hopefully no one would have to do that, because I was sure that all the remains would be eventually identified. I was surprised when the announcement was made that a Vietnam Unknown was selected and was to be entombed next to the other Unknowns on the plaza. My thoughts and expectations of all the Vietnam remains being identified had been nullified, the reality was unmistakable, and this was happening. Years later when the announcement of the disinterment became public, it was a relief. I was actually glad that 1Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, United States Air Force was identified. Another family can put their loved one to rest and have closure to a valiant American warrior’s life. I am sure that every Vietnam Veteran or any veteran of any war feels the same way.
Eight years before the interment of the Vietnam Unknown, while assigned to the second relief, I decided to do a tribute to the Vietnam MIA’s / KIA’s by wearing a POW/MIA bracelet for one walk in 1976, the bicentennial year. It turned out to be more significant and impactful than I ever could have imagined at the time. I wore this POW/MIA bracelet with the inscription of: SGT. GARY LABOHN 11-30-68 on it, who went Missing In Action three months after my arrival in Vietnam in 1968. A little side note, when you send for a bracelet you don’t have the choice of names or years as I recall, ironic that I got a MIA soldier the year I arrived in country. It also had the blue star sticker representative of MIA. That was not a coincidence evidently because years later I had a heartfelt encounter at the Vietnam War Memorial.
For now let me continue expressing my thoughts and experience related to the interment and disinterment of the Vietnam Unknown. In 1984 I received written notification from the Secretary of Defense of the interment. I am assuming I received this notice due to the fact I am a tomb sentinel, because I didn’t know anyone else at Fort Benning that received one. I decided to attend the ceremony and traveled from Fort Benning, Georgia to Arlington.
The day before the interment ceremonies, I was able to pass through the Capital Rotunda to visit the Vietnam Unknown lying in state with an Army friend. She and I both had intense feelings when viewing this lonely flag draped casket with the Joint Service Honor Guard encircling it. The next day, I was present for the Vietnam Unknown internment ceremony. I witnessed the speeches in the amphitheater, by President Ronald Reagan and others. That day I was accompanied by another Army buddy, the husband of the Army friend from the day before. I wasn’t able to witness the actual internment ceremony on the plaza, because I hadn’t been cleared to do so, not being assigned to The Old Guard, if you remember I was stationed at Fort Benning at the time. I left Arlington with a little disappointment that I couldn’t be part of the ceremony on the plaza or actually be a casket bearer or on the mat posted in the guard box. That would have been the utmost honor to lay to rest the Vietnam Unknown for obvious reasons. That disappointment soon disappeared turning to the feeling that numerous American families will never know if that is their loved one. This left my heart heavy with that thought.
You remember I talked about the POW/ MIA bracelet and it wasn’t a coincidence. Years later after retiring from active duty, I escorted two of my very good friends, veteran brothers that were also Vietnam Vets to Washington DC and Arlington. One of them was a retired US Army First Sergeant William H. Martin III who passed away in May of 2020 and Ebin Olrun a US Marine, a Yupik Eskimo from a small island village in Alaska, to visit the Vietnam Memorial. During that visit I had an encounter with a vendor selling POW/MIA bracelets in the area close to the memorial. On this trip I thought it would be fitting to wear the bracelet that hadn’t been on my wrist since that single walk in 1976. To explain this encounter, as I was looking at the other bracelets on a display table, the vendor, an older woman grabbed my arm with the bracelet with extreme excitement. She then emotionally started to tell me a story of how SERGEANT GARY LABOHN, the name on the bracelet, was the son of her best friend. Her friend had passed away not knowing if her son was a POW that hadn’t returned or MIA. She also told me that his name at that time was still not on the wall of the memorial. Then to give her some comfort, I told her what I had done with the bracelet as a sentinel. I further explained that I belonged to the Society of the Honor Guard Tomb Of the Unknown Soldier. I recited our motto : “Soldiers never die unless they are forgotten, Tomb Guards never forget.” SGT. GARY LABOHN will never be forgotten, Tomb Sentinels will never let that happen. Gary’s memory and sacrifice will always be guarded by a sentinel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and those Unknowns represent all of our fallen, including him. That encounter made me understand the underlying honor and devotion to the creed that by the way didn’t exist in writing when I was a sentinel. During my tour of duty those values were just understood. I am glad the creed was put into words for everyone to understand our commitment to this honor to our brothers and sisters who have given their lives for all of us.
I have realized the Vietnam war has changed my life in other ways other than just being in a war torn country. It has made me more aware that our military’s task is to encourage peace but unfortunately sometimes with military force. This is a terrible loss of life. Our nation must be aware that we must honor our warriors, not the war! For me, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has given me a way to honor the Vietnam fallen. To be one of the representatives for all the Vietnam veterans with every 21 steps and 21 second count I took on the mat, to let those Vietnam veterans and families know they are not forgotten. Writing this has rekindled old feelings I haven’t consciously thought about in years, the exception would be my visits to the Tomb. I believe like every sentinel that has set foot on that plaza to be a representative of our country, remembers the first time and the last time on the mat with all the thoughts of duty and commitment in between. It doesn’t matter how many years that have passed, you still get emotional with what was entrusted to you. I mentioned earlier about when I was assigned to the platoon that the creed didn’t exist. Let me say something else about the creed. The creed is words to describe our esteemed duties. It explains our respect and devotion to protect the honor and sacrifice of our fallen, but it doesn’t describe the individual human emotion that is in the heart of a sentinel. I am sure that every sentinel has his or her emotional response to the honor bestowed on them. For me, I am one of the representatives of the Vietnam veterans that didn’t have the chance to walk the mat on that sacred ground at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I always tried to give them my very best. It was not just my duty for my Vietnam brothers and sisters, it is my emotional thanks for all the Vietnam veterans that had fallen in different ways: not returning physically or for those that mentally haven’t returned and are suffering with scars of war. Just like all veterans, we will all physically disappear into eternity. We will not be forgotten, because of the undying commitment and devotion of the sentinels on guard duty; past, present and future at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I will always be humbly grateful that I was able to be one of Vietnam veterans representatives honoring their sacrifice. “Soldiers never die until they are forgotten, Tomb Guards Never Forget”!
Units & CampaignsSERVICE DATES:
United States Air Force - July 1966- July 1970
United States Army - Dec 1974 - June 1991
10th Tactical Recon Squadron, Mt Home, AFB, Idaho.
16th Tactical Recon Squadron, Republic of Viet Nam.
336th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson, AFB, NC.
Co. B, 6th Battalion, 1st Infantry (Training Brigade), Ft. Polk, LA.
Co. E, 1st Battalion, 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard), Ft. Myer, VA.
US Army Tank-Automotive Command, Warren MI.
Co. C (Airborne) 1/60th Infantry, Ft. Richardson, AK.
US Army NCO Academy, Ft. Richardson, AK.
172nd Light Inf. Brigade, (S2) Ft. Richardson, AK.
Co. D, 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, Ft. Benning, GA.
Co. B, 1st Battalion, 17th Regiment 6th Infantry Division, Ft. Richardson, AK.
HHC, 1st Bde, (S3) 6th Infantry Division, Ft. Richardson, AK.
Light Fighter Academy, 6th Infantry Division, Ft. Richardson, AK.
Viet Nam Counteroffensive Phase V
Viet Nam Counteroffensive Phase VI
TET Counteroffensive 69 Viet Nam Summer-Fall 69
Awards & DecorationsMeritorious Service Medal
Army Commendation Medal (2OLC)
Air Force Commendation Medal
Army Achievement Medal
Army Good Conduct (6th award)
Air Force Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Service Medal (w/1 bronze service star)
Viet Nam Service Medal (w/2 bronze service stars)
NCO Professional Development Ribbon (3 award)
Army Service Ribbon
Overseas Service Ribbon (1OLC)
Presidential Unit Citation
Republic of Viet Nam Campaign Metal
Overseas Bars 2
Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge
Expert Rifle Badge
Expert Pistol Badge
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Did you know?
How long does the Sentinel hesitate after the facing movement to begin the return walk? Is the rifle carried on the same shoulder all the time?
The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the the Guard Change ceremony begins.