“I told my mother, ‘I’m joining the Army; don’t tell Dad,’” Woodruff recalled.
Woodruff, who resides in Marietta with his wife, said he always wanted to serve in the military and hoped to join the Army upon graduation from high school, but his father insisted he earn a college education. He honored his father’s wishes.
“My great-grandfather was in the Civil War and from him to me there was no one in the service, so I just wanted to be in the military,” said Woodruff, who is the current post commander of American Legion Post 29 in Marietta.
He went on to become one of only 615 sentinels ever to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s largest military cemetery in Arlington, Va. He has also received the second rarest award given by the U.S. Army, the Tomb Guard Badge.
“The Tomb Guard Badge is the least-awarded decoration that the Army has given short of the Astronaut Badge,” Woodruff said. “There are more Congressional Medals of Honor out there than Tomb Guard Badges. We are a unique group.”
In 1964, Woodruff, a native of Oxford, Ohio, was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana for infantry training. Once at the training post, his commander asked him if he wanted to interview to become a member of the prestigious Old Guard, or the Presidential Honor Guard. Woodruff, along with four of his fellow battalion members, was selected to join the Old Guard in Washington, D.C.
The Old Guard was established by the U.S. Army in 1784 as a result of the 1783 Paris Peace Treaty, which formally ended the Revolutionary War.
The best of the best
The Old Guard is comprised of several different companies. The Honor Guard Company is the most distinguished company and consists of three platoons: the U.S. Army Drill Team, the casket bearers, and the most distinguished platoon, the Tomb Guard Platoons.
Woodruff was selected to the Honor Guard Company upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. The different platoon commanders were flabbergasted, Woodruff said, when he requested to join the first platoon, the Tomb Guard.
“I came to the best unit, which was the Old Guard, and I wanted to be in the Honor Guard Company because that’s the best company in the Old Guard and now I want to be in the best platoon,” Woodruff said. “I said, ‘I want to go to the Tomb. I want to be in the best of the best.’”
Instead, Woodruff was placed in the second platoon, the casket bearers, until he received a call from the sergeant of the Tomb Guard Platoon, who promoted him to the first platoon just one week later.
The sergeant of the Tomb Guard Platoon confronted Woodruff about his request to join.
“He was, in my opinion, a living god,” Woodruff said. “That man was something else.”
A private guard
Woodruff became one of the only privates to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns. He described the relationships he had with his sergeant and other platoon members as a familial bond that only those who have served in the platoon can understand.
“That sergeant came to my OCS graduation, and then when I graduated from flight school he came to my flight school graduation,” Woodruff said. “When I retired, he came to my retirement so that guy was with me all the way. See, the Tomb is like a family.”
Woodruff served in the Tomb Guard Platoon from 1964 to 1966, when he was sent to Officer Candidate School before being deployed to Vietnam for the first time in 1967. He alternated between serving in the Army in Vietnam and teaching various classes at military bases throughout the following several years before entering flight school and serving as an aviator in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Shielded from protests
He took a leave from active duty, referred to as Bootstrap, to earn his college degree from Ohio State University in 1973. Woodruff said he never personally experienced any discrimination from protesters or civilians for serving in Vietnam that so many other veterans experienced during the 1970s.
“I was lucky because I was career military so when I came out of Vietnam, I went directly to Fort Lewis, then I went right to my next duty station so I was never thrown out into the general public,” Woodruff said. “But when I went to Bootstrap and reported to the ROTC, the first thing they said was let your hair grow long, keep your mouth shut, wear civilian clothes, and do your thing. And a few weeks later, they burned the ROTC building at Ohio State.”
Woodruff moved to Marietta after retiring from active duty. He began working at Lockheed Martin in 1985 as a safety coordinator where he oversaw the safety of all employees who worked on the final assembly lines. He retired from Lockheed in 1998.
Several decades after his military retirement, Woodruff is still passionate about the armed forces. He joined the American Legion in 2008 and has served as commander of Legion Post 29 in Marietta near Roswell Street since 2010.
“We get involved in Veterans’ Assistance, last year we gave away way over $60,000 to children and youth, we have a golf tournament every year of which we take our proceeds and divvy it out to the Cobb County and Marietta fire and police departments,” Woodruff said when he described the role of his American Legion Post.
Woodruff speaks to many different schools and organizations about his experiences as a guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns and offers advice to those who wish to serve in the Tomb Guard Platoon.