LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Eighth-graders at Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch gave Benjamin Bell something special Monday.
They offered up their rapt attention.
Bell, a former honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, talked to students about his experience guarding the Tomb, which symbolizes all of America's war dead "known but to God."
The 6-foot-4 Bell, who guarded the Tomb for four years as part of the 3rd Infantry Regiment -- The Old Guard -- said the legendary attention of guards to their uniform and personal appearance reflects fitting respect for those at rest at Arlington.
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It's an art form and an obsession to show thanks for the defense of American freedoms, he said.
Bell, 33, served on active duty from 1999 to 2004, and is now a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Tampa Bay area.
Imagine School history and civics teacher Roger Meadows requested a speaker from the Society of the Honor Guard because his eighth-grade class is preparing to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns and other historic shrines in the Washington, D.C., area.
Betsy Hall, Imagine's media specialist, said she has great respect for the honor guards.
"You ask someone to stand guard in hurricane weather," Hall said of the honor guards, who walk their measured rounds at the Tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "These guys are amazing."
Bell began aspiring for service in the U.S. Army as a seventh-grader and enlisted at age 17. He was one of only a few military policeman selected for the rigorous program.
Of all the badges issued by the Army, only the Army Astronaut Badge is rarer than the Honor Guard Badge, said Bell, a former sergeant.
Bell talked about the history of Arlington, the former estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which was taken over by the U.S. government during the Civil War.
The Tomb of the Unknowns holds three fallen soldiers: one each from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
The body of an unknown from the Vietnam War was subsequently identified through mitochondrial DNA testing.
In 1998, the remains were identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who
was shot down in Vietnam in 1972. At his family's request, his remains were reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Bell said.
Few visitors to Arlington National Cemetery venture beyond the eternal flame of the Kennedy grave site or the Tomb of the Unknowns, but the Garden of Stone has plenty more history, Bell said.
Among those interred there are Audie Murphy, America's most decorated soldier from World War II; Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general often credited with inventing baseball; author Dashiell Hammett, who served in World War I and World War II; and Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., an Apollo astronaut.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.