Former guard: Grueling duty also a satisfying one
FISHER — One day per year on Memorial Day, many Americans pay tribute to those who have fallen in the service of their country.
For three years of Matt Kreeb's life, every day was Memorial Day.
"Camaraderie, honor and challenge at the highest that I have ever experienced," Kreeb said.
That's how the Fisher man looks back on his service.
"Humans experience the greatest satisfaction in life when serving a cause greater than themselves," Kreeb said.
Memorial Day is not just another day for him.
"I have a much deeper appreciation for things than before," said Kreeb, a Gilman native. "My appreciation for simple freedoms."
Eleven-hour stints on his feet at a time without a break were not uncommon for Kreeb and the other tomb guards.
And Kreeb has the knees to prove it.
Despite the grueling service, Kreeb wouldn't trade it for the world. He said it was probably the best way he could have spent his youth.
The 29-year-old is living a more relaxed life these days, studying theology while living with his wife, Jessica, and their three young daughters in Fisher.
But Kreeb's experiences, both physically and mentally, will live with him for the rest of his life.
Few people realize the rigorous lifestyle of a tomb guard.
It is so intense that the Army has trouble finding enough volunteers who are able to make it through training.
"Eighty percent of our volunteers wash out by their own choice," Kreeb said. "It's intense. For an average of six to eight months it's very intense initial training."
A guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns carries three primary responsibilities — that of choreographed ceremonies such as changing of the guard and flag-folding ceremonies; maintenance and wear of the uniform (each soldier is responsible for his own uniform, which requires an average of six hours a day to maintain); and knowledge of the cemetery and the tomb. There are 18 typed pages of information, and the guards must memorize it word for word.
A guard must be able to recite or write out any portion of the 18 pages upon request.
Kreeb didn't think about getting out of the service as a tomb guard just occasionally. He said he thought about it every day.
"It was the most enormous challenge of my life every day for roughly two years," he said.
Kreeb didn't have a single day off for two years. Family members of tomb guards don't understand that.
"We didn't have too many guys in training that were married," Kreeb said. "We would work in excess of 100 hours a week."
Things improve once a guard completes training.
The typical day of a guard begins at 5:30 in the morning. The guards pass through a round of inspections of their uniforms, weapons and go through some initial training. The cemetery opens at 8 a.m., at which point the guard begins working with the public.
"We would conduct as many as 45 ceremonies during the day while the public was present," Kreeb said. "The guards assist the public laying a wreath at the tomb."
Kreeb said one of the most memorable things about the job was the start of the day — "the early morning hours at the end of the work day when the sun would just be breaking," he said. "That would signal two things — 1) that I was soon to be relieved and my long 24-hour shift was about to be over and 2) new life."
Guards work what is called a "fireman's schedule" — three shifts of guards on 24-hour rotations: 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on then 96 hours off on a nine-day rotation that operates continuously regardless of holiday or sickness.
It might seem unreasonable, but Kreeb said what the guards do "is not logical; it's tradition. We do what we do to give the utmost honor to those who paid the highest price."
Many of the guards' actions might seem foreign to the public — Kreeb calling it "our strange movements, our strange activities.
"But the primary purpose of the guard is to ensure that America does not forget the sacrifice of our military heroes. The tomb guard is America's representative to ensure that our country never forgets what those who have come before us have paid."
Only after a guard's training has been completed does he have time to relax. And at that point, the trainee becomes the trainer.
Kreeb served as a guard for two years and ran the training and recruitment program for another 1 years.
Kreeb still bears the "scars" of his service, most notably in his knees. All that time on his feet caused permanent damage for which he had to leave guard duty.
Like the methodical, disciplined man that he is, Kreeb doesn't ask for pity or brag about his physical problems or his service. He merely states it as fact and looks to the future.
That service is evident in how he goes about life — but may be moderated a bit from the first few years after his service as a guard.
A tomb guard pursues "perfection in everything we do," Kreeb said.
"The residual effect has been a difficulty toning things down. It's a good thing in some respects. I strive for doing things with high standards in life, but it's irritating for my wife and children that I hold such high standards."
Kreeb and his wife met three years ago — five years after his service as a guard. But he admits it's probably a good thing they didn't meet earlier. He had five years to temper his rigorous expectations.
Kreeb has a couple of things going for him in his marriage. His wife is also former military, and she wouldn't trade him for the world.
"I'm very proud of my husband," Jessica Kreeb said. "I'm quite honored to be married to him and to be able to share his experiences."
As a former member of the Illinois Army National Guard, Jessica Kreeb said to some degree she can be a little tough herself.
"Both of us tend to think along the same wave length," she said. "I think in general learning to parent together, being that we both come from a similar background, it can be a little challenging."
She said when they were first married, she noticed that her husband "had this incredibly keen desire to have everything in its perfect place and everything looking sharp and clean."
Now, she sees that military background coming out in his parenting.
"He tells our children what to do, and he expects it to be done right away just as a soldier would," Jessica said. "And that's just not the case."
Matt Kreeb spent several years selling real estate before leaving that to spend more time on greater passions — ministry and family.
Kreeb graduated in 2008 from Eastern Illinois University and now is in seminary, spending one day a week at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln while researching and studying from home on other days.
He's not sure what the future holds, or whether he will seek a full-time ministry position right away.