Pasquale Varallo had always feared cemeteries.
Then, when he was serving in the Army in 1948, he was assigned to, of all places, Arlington National Cemetery, where he guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
At 2 o’clock one winter morning, Varallo, now 82 and living in Fox Chase, was on duty by himself. Somehow, at that moment, he felt his worries evaporate, and that scary repository of ghosts was transformed into safe and consecrated ground, sanctified by heroes.
“I didn’t feel alone,” Varallo said Friday, his voice cracking. “I felt like I was being guarded.”
Others who have stood as sentinels at the Tomb have also understood its special status. A few expressed a wish to be buried at Arlington. Varallo, a retired truck driver, mentioned that to U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), who, with Memorial Day approaching, introduced the Tomb Guard Recognition Act this week in Congress.
The legislation would change the requirement that a member of the armed forces must have served in active duty to be buried at Arlington. Service in the Tomb Guard is considered ceremonial.
Fitzpatrick, in a conference call with Varallo and reporters Friday, said he was committed to affording Tomb Guards this final honor.
“We’re working to right this wrong,” the Bucks County congressman said. Being a Tomb Guard, he said, is “stoic, it’s patriotic, and a high honor for those who do it.”
A military guard was first posted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1926. That unidentified soldier had fought and died in World War I.
The remains of service personnel from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War have since been interred in the Tomb. Nowadays, the monument is called the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Since 1948, all 600 Tomb Guards have come from the Army’s Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, of which Varallo was a part. Many who make the cut are considered elite – the guard accepts just a small portion of those who apply, Fitzgerald said.
As it happens, Varallo, who goes by Pat, said he didn’t want to be buried in Arlington. Though he cherishes his nine months as a Tomb Guard, he’d prefer to spend eternity with Eileen, his deceased wife, at Our Lady of Grace Cemetery in Langhorne.
Being part of the Tomb Guard was a “sad privilege” for Varallo, father of four grown children.
It was tied to “love, honor, glory, hope,” he said. Varallo, a poet who has written two books of verse, wrote about his Tomb experience. One of his poems begins:
High atop a hill on a gentle slope, emotions may run high …
Every Memorial Day, Varallo and a friend visit Arlington, the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy, his brother former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and 400,000 others, mostly members of the armed services. Varallo said he planned to go again this year.
His hope is that his comrades in arms who guarded the Tomb will get their last wish and be buried at Arlington, he said. “It’s what they’d like more than anything.”