Most of us progress through our own cadence of duties each day, in lock step with obligations to families, workplaces or other responsibilities.

In that way, Valparaiso's Bill Hanna is no different than many Region professionals and parents.

But on the wall of Hanna's Crown Point office hangs a reminder of something extraordinary — a time when literally every step he took was dedicated to honoring America's fallen military heroes.

In his current life, Hanna, 43, is president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, a public agency central to dolling out millions of dollars each year in Region economic development projects.

He's also a father and husband.

In a previous life and U.S. Army career, Hanna was almost exclusively dedicated to one of the most somberly patriotic duties within our nation's fabric.

His experiences as an Army sentinel at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remain vivid in his thoughts everyday, and that's by design.

Sentinels carry their badge of service for life, and any missteps can lead to a formal military stripping of what is otherwise a lifelong honor, Hanna told me during a recent visit to his RDA office.

Hanna's service as one of the guards of perhaps our nation's most hallowed grounds — and the responsibility he still shoulders for that sacred duty — is a selfless lesson for all of us this Memorial Day.

From strife to peace

Anyone who ever has visited Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, D.C., can attest to the serene, peaceful beauty of the massive burial ground.

It's a true place of reflection honoring American men and women who have served, and in many cases sacrificed everything for our nation.

It didn't start out that way, and it's a lesson Hanna still holds close from his years of service there.

During the 1860s, as the Civil War was fast becoming our nation's bloodiest conflict, a body count of upwards of 700,000 dead was forcing the U.S. government to find new means and facilities for honoring and burying the fallen.

Early in the war, the U.S. government reached across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., to Arlington, Virginia, seizing the mansion and estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Once a highly decorated U.S. Army colonel, Lee resigned his former Union military post to become a general to the Confederacy, opting to serve his native Virginia rather than fight against it in the Civil War.

Lee was branded a traitor, and his estate, the ancestral home of his wife's family, was seized by the Union.

Ultimately, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs drafted a plan to turn the Arlington estate into a cemetery for the Union dead, beginning the burials in Mary Custis Lee's rose garden so that no one could again inhabit the estate.

Among many things, some historians see it as a symbolic gesture of revenge against a perceived traitor. Meigs own son, who died serving in the Civil War, was among the early burials.

So were some 2,111 unknown Civil War dead, nameless remains planting literal seeds for what would become the revered Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The tomb opened in 1921 as a last resting place and monument to the sacrifices of service members throughout all of our major conflicts whose remains couldn't be identified.

It's the sort of detailed and poignant history Hanna said was required learning in the highly regimented life of a tomb sentinel.

Historical gravity

Hanna distinctly remembers jogging Arlington National Cemetery in the evenings during his service as a guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the mid to late 1990s.

Sometimes he would watch the sunset from the steps of Lee's old mansion or the flickering eternal flames at the grave of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

It was all part of the personal contact and learning both encouraged and required of a tomb sentinel.

"The historical gravity is always there with you — and is still with me today," Hanna told me last week during an interview regarding his sentinel experiences.

"Arlington is the peaceful place of selfless altruism," Hanna added, noting the irony that war, death and even revenge served as the foundation for what is now a massive garden of peaceful and somber reflection.

Already enlisted in the Army and having served on a team providing presidential escorts, Hanna volunteered for tomb duty in 1996 at the age of 20.

One of Hanna's uncles is buried at Arlington, killed while on active duty in the 1960s. Hanna had visited the cemetery as a child, and his grandmother often told him what an accomplishment serving as a tomb guard would represent.

"Wouldn't it be something if you could do that?" Hanna remembers his grandmother asking him after the family watched a video pertaining to the famed changing of the guard at the tomb.

"Eighteen moths later, I was there," he said.

Hanna would enter a life strictly in lock step with one mission: honoring and protecting the hallowed grounds serving at the last resting place of unknown American heroes.

It took nine months of intensive training, beyond the stringent military training he already had endured in past service, to earn his tomb sentinel's badge.

It's one of the least-given awards in the U.S. Army, and it came with very strict strings pertaining to a guard's code of conduct.

"The award can be taken away, even after active duty," Hanna explained.

Badge holders must continue living their lives in a manner that does credit to the particular service. If they falter, badges can be stripped.

Cadence of service

It's a fitting cadence of service and honor given the somber duties of a tomb sentinel.

While in service, sentinel teams take turns guarding the tomb in 24 hours on and and 24 hours off sequences.

Witnessing the changing of the guard, when one sentinel relieves another, is one of the most moving experiences within our nation's fabric.

Sentinels are trained in the emotional gravity, including keeping their own feelings in check, Hanna said.

Taps worn on the shoes of sentinels sound out an intentional cadence with each step. Each tapping sound, Hanna said, has a meaning and serves as a guide to other sentinels regarding what comes next in the guard-changing ceremony.

Passing on the tradition

Serving as a tomb sentinel requires complete selflessness, Hanna said.

Military service members seeking glory or personal elevation from tomb service are quickly weeded out and turned away, he said.

"You see people in absolute anguish in that place," Hanna said of visitors to Arlington who have friends or loved ones buried there.

Sentinels take to heart that veterans and surviving family members travel to the tomb, sometimes for the first and only times in their lives, to pay respects and witness the changing of the guard, he said.

Hanna holds sentinel badge No. 441. Today, those badges number more than 600. So it was important for his generation — and all generations — of guards to pass on the lessons of both stern ceremony and compassion for the living who visit the tomb, Hanna said.

Toward the end of his sentinel service, Hanna became the lead instructor for tomb sentinels, helping to fashion a new generation of tomb guards steeped in the same old traditions.

He also participated directly in a duty never before undertaken by tomb guards.

Sentinels are strictly forbidden from physically touching the tomb out of respect for the fallen, Hanna said. They're also authorized and trained to use physical force to protect the tomb from those who would damage it — and deadly force against those who would threaten human life on cemetery grounds.

In 1998, Hanna became one of the sentinels authorized to touch the tomb when he helped disinter the body of a previously unknown Vietnam War veteran, Lt. Michael Blassie, for reburial elsewhere.

Modern technological advances confirmed the remains were Blassie's, and Hanna had the honor and obligation of serving on the removal team.

It's one of the many experiences ensuring an eternal and heavy corner that Hanna's sentinel service occupies in his heart.

"It's the only job I've had where every minute I wasn't there on duty, my heart still was," Hanna said.

Hanna's experiences, and the greater meaning of the legacy he once swore with his life to protect, should resonate with all of us this Memorial Day weekend.

In a larger sense, we all must dedicate ourselves to the selfless protection and furtherance of the memories of our fallen dead.

Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown and its powerful sentinel ceremonies are all things that should be experienced, at least once, by every American who is able to travel there.

But we don't have to leave the confines of Northwest Indiana to experience cemeteries where hundreds of veterans, many of whom died in service of their country, are buried.

"These are people who gave up the bulk and prime of their lives for us to move forward as a people," Hanna said.

That's the greatest historical gravity of all, one we all should remember to honor this weekend and all other days of the year.

Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

Outbrain