Eric Distel never thought his duties in the U.S. Army would include pressing clothes for hours on end.
Distel, a 2008 Paul G. Blazer High School grad, finds himself on the working end of an iron much of the day as part of his duty with the Army’s Old Guard.
It’s a coveted position and one he obviously takes much pride in being part of.
E5 Sgt. Eric Distel is in Alpha Company, which is the commander and chief’s guard and modeled after a unit that George Washington founded to be his personal guard.
The Old Guard sometimes dresses in Revolutionary War attire complete with muskets, Distel said. “We do things the old-fashioned way.”
The Old Guard performs funeral ceremonies for veterans and for ceremonial retirements. Every Wednesday it does a public performance called Twilight Tattoo, he said.
“This is my primary duty with the Army,” he said last week during a visit home. “It’s a position for infantry personnel, but we don’t deploy. Our main focus is doing the ceremonies and funerals in Washington, D.C.”
Distel did a tour in Iraq from 2010 to 2011 when he and his wife, the former Dawn Loree Lake, were stationed in Hawaii. While in Iraq, he was assigned to protect and drive the brigadier commander. The Army was returning control to Iraq and the U.S. military was leaving the area.
It was through a deployment buddy that Distel learned about the Old Guard. Distel showed interest, but there were requirements.
“You have to be at least 5 foot 10, submit a photo and have two letters of recommendation from higher ranking individuals,” he said. “You also have to have a high (score) of 110 or higher on the GT (the Army aptitude test).”
Distel qualified for the Old Guard, a branch of which provides guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va. He said there have been fewer than 400 guards in the history of the tomb.
“It’s a pretty hard assignment for somebody with a family and new baby, and that’s not what I want to do right now,” he said. “Those guys are never home. It’s very intense. I’ve known some of the guys and the work they put in on it.
Distel’s job in the Old Guard is intense, too. Members literally spend hours making sure there are no wrinkles in the uniform. “We have our own press dry-cleaning shop,” he said. “We get off work at 5 o’clock, but sometimes we’ll be there until 9 making sure everything is how it needs to be.”
Distel has three soldiers under him and he has to make sure their uniforms are, well, perfect.
“If it’s messed up, it’s me that gets in trouble,” he said. “These guys have been here longer than I have. They square me away half the time.”
Distel has participated in prestigious ceremonies, including a wreath-laying program on the Army’s birthdate. He also went to Frederick, Md., for a ceremony where Francis Scott Key is buried. “They brought the actual transcript of the national anthem and set it on his grave.”
Distel said another reason he joined the Old Guard was it would have him stationed closer to home. His in-laws, Don and Teresa, live in Ashland, and his parents, Phil and Kathy, live in Lawrence County.
“When I joined the infantry I never thought I’d be pressing uniforms,” he said.
Distel has always been a squared-away soldier. “In basic training, they said he had the best locker,” his wife said. “He’s an organized person. This is his duty segment for the next three years.”
Distel is following a family tradition in the military. His father was in Vietnam and his brother was in Desert Storm. He doesn’t know if he’ll sign up for another hitch after this one is over in 2016.
The Distels have a son, Kolton, who was born in May. The joy of a newborn also came with grief because the baby’s twin, Katherine, died after two days. They found out 12 weeks into Mrs. Distel’s pregnancy the baby girl had a fatal brain disorder.
“It was very conflicting,” Mrs. Distel said. “You wanted to be excited, but you were also grieving. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”
For now, the couple will enjoy their new baby boy and Army life — complete with pressing uniforms.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.