Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

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The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns

Since 1937 the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery (MAP) has been guarded every minute of every day, 365 days a year, even when the cemetery is closed and in any kind of weather. It is guarded by Tomb Guard sentinels, who are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia, which is adjacent to the cemetery. Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military.

Because it is considered such a high honor, the process to become a sentinel is incredibly difficult. Members of the Old Guard must volunteer for the position. Volunteers who are accepted are then assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for males or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for females with a proportionate weight and build. An interview and a two-week trial to determine a volunteer’s capability to be trained as a sentinel then is required.

During the trial phase, would-be sentinels memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a “walk.” A walk occurs between guard changes. A daytime walk is one-half hour in the summer and one hour in the winter. All night walks are one hour.

And each walk performed by a tomb sentinel is identical, with the steps the sentinels perform having specific meaning. Everything the sentinels do is a series of 21, which symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the highest military honor that can be bestowed, and is reserved for the President and foreign heads of state, but also for the Unknowns.

The sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change Ceremony begins with the appearance of a relief commander, who will approach and salute the Tomb. The commander then turns to the crowd and asks everyone to rise and remain silent during the ceremony. As the Commander is speaking, the relief sentinel will report. The commander will walk over to the relief sentinel and conduct a full inspection of the new sentinel, inspecting the weapon and the sentinel himself. This is a real inspection and the relief sentinel can be sent away, leaving the current sentinel in place till the next scheduled Changing of the Guard. If approved, both the commander and relief sentinel will walk to the middle to meet with the posted sentinel, all the while keeping in step with each other. At this point, the ceremony concludes when the posted sentinel step off of the mat and faces the relief sentinel. Both sentinels will acknowledge each other with orders. All three will salute the Tomb, then the relief sentinel will step onto the mat and take over where the now relieved sentinel left off. Both the commander and the relieved sentinel will then walk off in step with each other and exit to the right, concluding the ceremony.

Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the Tomb Guard Quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the Changing of the Guard. The guards also train on their days off.

If a soldier successfully passes the training during the trial phase, “new-soldier” training begins. New sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony and the manual of arms that takes place during the inspection portion of the Changing of the Guard. Sentinels also learn to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition, a meticulous process that by itself can take up to eight hours each day.

After several months of walking and serving, sentinels are then tested to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms, uniform preparation and their walks. Then, the Badge Test is given. The test is 100 randomly selected questions of the 300 items memorized during training on the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct to succeed.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Sentinels are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over.

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

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NOTE:  Due to the coronavirus pandemic Arlington National Cemetery is closed to visitors until further notice.  Funerals, however, are proceeding as scheduled albeit with certain limitations.  Please check their website for specific and updated information.

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USS Serpens Monument

During this lunch break I rode to and spent some time in Arlington National Cemetery (MAP). Because bike riding is not permitted in the cemetery, I parked my bike at one of the bike racks provided at the visitors center, and then went for a long walk in the cemetery.  During my walk, I happened upon a stone marker that stood out because of its size and shape. Upon examination, I found out that it is a memorial to the men of a U.S. Coast Guard ship named the USS Serpens (AK-97).

As I would later learn, the USS Serpens was a 14,250-ton cargo ship that was laid down in March of 1943, before being transferred to the U.S. Navy the following month for service during World War II.  She was responsible for delivering troops, goods and equipment to locations in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, and served for almost three years, until the night of January 29, 1945, when disaster struck.

Late on that fateful January evening, Serpens was anchored off Lunga Beach, a promontory on the northern coast of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands. The ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry L. Stinson, and seven others, one officer and six enlisted men, were ashore. The remaining crewmen were loading depth charges into her holds when Serpens exploded. After the explosion, only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon afterward.  One hundred ninety-six Coast Guard crewmen, 57 Army stevedores, and a Public Health Service physician named Dr. Harry M. Levin, were killed in the explosion, and a soldier ashore was killed by shrapnel. Only two of those on board, Seamen First Class Kelsie K. Kemp and George S. Kennedy, who had been in the boatswain’s locker, survived.  The catastrophe was the single greatest disaster suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

In July 1947, the Coast Guard still thought an enemy attack had caused the blast. However, by June 10, 1949, it was determined not to have been the result of enemy action.

At first report the incident in July 1947, attributed to explosion to enemy action.  But a court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from the remaining evidence.  By 1949 the Navy noted that the loss was not due to enemy action but due to an “accident intrinsic to the loading process.”

The available remains of those killed were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. They were later repatriated under the program for the return of World War II dead,  in 1949.  The mass recommittal of the unidentified dead took place in section 34 at MacArthur Circle. The remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves near the intersection of Jesup and Grant Drives. It is the largest group burial to at Arlington National Cemetery.  An additional two grave sites were reserved for the octagonal monument inscribed with all of their names, which I saw on this ride.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, is not the only local memorial dedicated to soldiers who had died in battle but later could not be identified.  There is The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution, located in the churchyard Burial Ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria.  And during this lunchtime bike ride, I rode to another of these memorials.  I visited The Civil War Unknowns Memorial.  It is also located in Arlington National Cemetery, on the grounds of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.  And the memorial I saw today actually predates the other two, making it the earliest such memorial in the local area.

In 1865, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs decided to build a memorial to Civil War dead.  The following year, in September of 1866, The Civil War Unknowns Memorial, was dedicated.  It stands atop a masonry vault containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers gathered from the battlefields of first and second battles of Bull Run as well as the route of the Union army’s retreat along the Rappahannock River.  The remains were found scattered across the battlefields or in trenches and brought to the cemetery.  None were identifiable.  And because in some instances only a few bones or a skull was recovered, it is presumed the vault contains the remains of both Confederate and Union Soldiers.

In constructing the memorial a circular pit, measuring approximately 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep, was dug.  The walls and floor were lined with brick, and it was segmented it into compartments with mortared brick walls.  Into each compartment were placed a different body part: skulls, legs, arms, ribs, etc.  The vault was then  sealed with concrete and soil.  Atop the burial vault was placed a 6-foot tall, 12-foot long, and 4-foot wide grey granite and concrete cenotaph, which was personally designed by General Meigs.  On the west face is an inscription that reads:

BENEATH THIS STONE
REPOSE THE BONES OF TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
GATHERED AFTER THE WAR
FROM THE FIELDS OF BULL RUN, AND THE ROUTE TO THE RAPPAHANOCK,
THEIR REMAINS COULD NOT BE IDENTIFIED. BUT THEIR NAMES AND DEATHS ARE
RECORDED IN THE ARCHIVES OF THEIR COUNTRY, AND ITS GRATEFUL CITIZENS
HONOR THEM AS OF THEIR NOBLE ARMY OF MARTYRS. MAY THEY REST IN PEACE.
SEPTEMBER. A. D. 1866.

The original memorial has undergone a number of aesthetic changes over the years.  But it’s original purpose, to honor our country’s unidentified dead from the Civil War, remains unchanged.

Chief Petty Officers’ Centennial Time Capsule

On a recent lunchtime bike ride I found myself at the United States Navy Memorial, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, between 7th and 9th Streets in Downtown D.C. I have been to this memorial a number of times, but this was the first time I noticed a small brass plaque located on one of the masts that encircles the memorial.  So, naturally, I had to check it out and find out more about it.

It turned out that the plaque marks the spot where a time capsule was placed in the base of the mast nearest to the entrance to the Navy Memorial Heritage Center.  Created by and dedicated to the Navy’s chief petty officers (CPOs), the time capsule was placed there on October 13, 1993, the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Navy’s establishment of the CPO position.

The time capsule is scheduled to be opened on the bicentennial anniversary of the establishment of the CPO position, on October 19, 2093.   And I look forward to being there to see it opened.

The inscription on the plaque reads,

“The rank of chief petty officer – the senior position among naval enlisted ranks – was established by the Navy Department in 1893. A time capsule was placed within this foundation on 13 October 1993 to be opened in the chiefs’ bicentennial year 2093.

The chief petty officers serving in the 1993 centennial year are honored to pass on these items representative of our first 100 years of service to our country and navy to the chiefs serving in the 2003 bicentennial year. As we look to the future, we place our faith and trust in you to carry out the traditions of leadership, pride, and professionalism, and continue “Set the tone.”

Our salute affirms our trust in you – the future chief petty officers of the United States Navy.”

It just goes to show you that you should keep your eyes open and be aware of what is around you when you are in D.C.  because you never know what you’re going to see.

      
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For today’s bike ride I rode over to Arlington National Cemetery (MAP).  However, my original destination within the cemetery was changed when I saw some artillery guns being set up at the end of McClellan Drive.  I asked one of the soldiers what was happening and found out that they were members of the Presidential Salute Battery, and they were there getting ready to participate in a military honors funeral.  So I decided to stay and watch, and go to my previously planned destination on another day.

Formed in 1953, the Presidential Salute Battery is a United States Army artillery battery that is part of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, or The Old Guard, the President of the United States’ escort regiment.  Also known as the 3rd U.S. Infantry Salute Guns Platoon, the battery  is chiefly responsible for firing ceremonial cannon volleys to render honors to visiting foreign dignitaries and heads of state at The White House, the Pentagon and elsewhere in the D.C., area. The battery also fires the final salutes during many funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.  They are also tasked with providing artillery support to the regiment during combat operations in the event of the need to defend the national capital city.  It also serves as the battalion’s mortar platoon, providing firepower support during tactical training exercises at nearby Fort A.P. Hill, in Virginia.  The guns platoon is the only unit of its kind in the Army, and its busy schedule includes more than 300 ceremonies each year.

The platoon is equipped with eight 3-inch anti-tank guns of World War II vintage, mounted on 105mm Howitzer chassis. Each gun weighs 5,775 pounds and fires 75mm blank shells with 1.5 pounds of powder

The battery is customarily deployed to Arlington National Cemetery for the funerals of sitting and former presidents of the United States, sitting cabinet secretaries, and military flag officers.  For funerals at Arlington it uses one of two firing positions, either from Section 4 of the cemetery on Dewey Drive, or at Red Springs on McClellan Drive where they were set up today.

The gun salutes rendered by the battery are done according to a customary order of arms which is 21 volleys for heads of state (including the president of the United States and former presidents); 19 for the vice-president of the United States, foreign chiefs of government, and members of the cabinet of the United States; and 17, 15, 13, and 11 for flag officers of the rank of O-10, O-9, O-8, and O-7, respectively.  Today’s salute was a 13-gun version done for an former admiral in the Navy.

         

         
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United States Coast Guard Memorial

The United States Coast Guard was created by Congress on this date in 1790 at the request of Alexander Hamilton.  Originally known as the Revenue Marine, it is the oldest continuous seagoing service of the United States.  And for this anniversary of its creation, I visited the Coast Guard Memorial, which sits atop a hill near the southern edge of Arlington National Cemetery.

The Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the country’s seven uniformed services. It is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement function as well as a Federal regulatory agency function as part of its mission set.  It operates under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the Department of the Navy by the President at any time, or by Congress during times of war.

Two tragic episodes in Coast Guard history prompted the construction of this national memorial. On September 16, 1918, 19 members of the crew of the cutter Seneca volunteered for a rescue party to help salvage the British steamer, Wellington, which had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Eleven of those volunteers were lost when the Wellington exploded and sank. Only 10 days later, on Sept. 26, 1918, the cutter Tampa was sunk by an enemy submarine in the British Channel, and all 131 on board that ship were lost.  Both the Tampa and the Seneca had been ordered to operate as part of the Navy when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1918.

The Coast Guard Memorial was designed by architect George Howe and sculptor Gaston Lachaise, and dedicated on May 23, 1928.  The memorial is set upon a rock foundation and contains a prominent pyramid design, intended to symbolize the spirit of the Coast Guard’s steadfastness.  Above the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus (meaning “Always Ready”), is a bronze seagull with its wings uplifted.  The seagull symbolizes the tireless vigil that the Coast Guard maintains over the nation’s maritime territory.  The names of the vessels Seneca and Tampa and their crewmen, as well as all Coast Guard personnel who lost their lives during the First World War, are also inscribed on the sides of the monument.

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Beirut Barracks Memorial

It was great early-spring weather for a bike ride today.  There was no longer any sign of the recent cold, rainy conditions that took away the cherry blossoms.  Instead, the skies were clear.  There was a slight breeze.  And the temperature was just warm enough to hint of summer’s approach.  So on this lunchtime bike ride I rode over to Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), and went for a long walk on the grounds.  And it was during this walk that I visited the Beirut Barracks Memorial.

The Beirut Barracks Memorial honors the 241 American servicemen, comprised of 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers, who were killed in the October 23, 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The bombing occurred during the Lebanese Civil War, when two truck bombs carrying what the FBI called the largest non-nuclear bomb in history, detonated by suicide bombers affiliated with a splinter group of the Iranian-and Syrian-supported Hezbollah organization, struck separate buildings housing United States and French military members of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon killing the U.S. servicemen, as well as 58 French peacekeepers, six civilians, and the two suicide attackers.

The memorial consists of a Lebanese cedar tree and a stone marker which reads, “‘Let Peace Take Root’  This cedar of Lebanon tree grows on living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attach and all victims of terrorism throughout the world.  Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims.  Given by: No Great Love. October 23, 1984.  A Time of Remembrance.”  And it is located in the green expanse of Arlington National’s Section 59, near the final resting place of some of the first Americans to shed blood in the fight against Middle East terrorism.  Twenty-one service members who lost their lives in the Beirut Barracks Bombing are also buried in Section 59 near the memorial.

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The National Museum of the Marine Corps

The National Museum of the Marine Corps

For this Independence Day bike ride, I chose a destination which is both patriotic and outside of the city, as I tend to prefer on these long, holiday weekends. On this bike ride I stopped by the National Museum of the Marine Corps.  Located just over 30 miles south of D.C., at 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway (MAP) in Triangle, Virginia, the museum is situated on a 135-acre site a short distance away from the main entry gate to Marine Corps Base Quantico.

The museum is a cooperative effort between the United States Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. The Foundation manages the museum operation, while the building, which was purchased privately and then donated to the Marine Corps, is under the command of Marine Corps University. The museum opened on November 10, 2006, and replaces both the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum in Quantico, Virginia, which closed in November of 2002, and the Marine Corps Historical Center in The Washington Navy Yard, which closed in July of 2005.

One of the most unique aspects of the 120,000-square-foot museum, which was designed by Curtis W. Fentress of Fentress Architects, is that the design of the building evokes the image of the marines raising the flag over Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, as famously depicted Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer prize-winning photograph and the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial.

Inside the museum, visitors can see permanent exhibits on World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as a number of collections which include more than 60,000 uniforms, weapons, vehicles, medals, flags, aircraft, works of art and other artifacts that trace the history of the Marine Corps from when it was founded in 1775 to the present.  The museum also includes class rooms, a theater, a gift shop, a bar, a restaurant, and a laser shooting range.

The museum, which draws over a half a million visitors a year and has become one of the top tourist attractions in the state of Virginia, is open every day except Christmas, and is free to the public. But if you are unable to ride a bike to or otherwise go to the museum in person, you can still experience the entire museum virtually from your computer or other streaming device. You can tour the exhibits virtually with high definition panoramas, zoom in on treasured artifacts, watch videos created specifically for the museum, and listen to docents recount Marine Corps history. 

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The First Division Monument

The destination for this lunchtime bike ride was a plaza within President’s Park, west of The White House and due South of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, between 17th Street Northwest and West Executive Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood. I rode there because it is the location of the First Division Monument. 

The First Division Monument commemorates all of the soldiers who died while serving in the 1st Infantry Division of the U. S. Army, also known as The Big Red One. Conceived by The Society of the First Infantry Division, the veteran’s organization of the Army’s First Division, it was designed by American architect Cass Gilbert, and sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created the Victory statue that sits atop the monument. French also created the Butt-Millet Fountain, also located in President’s Park.  But he is perhaps best known for the sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln at The Lincoln Memorial.

The monument was erected in 1924 and dedicated later that year by President Calvin Coolidge.  It was originally intended to honor the sacrifices made by soldiers of the First Division who fought and died in World War I.  Later, additions to the monument were made to commemorate the lives of First Division soldiers who fought in subsequent wars and conflicts. The World War II addition on the west side was designed by the original architect’s son, Cass Gilbert Jr., and dedicated in 1957. The Vietnam War addition on the east side was added in 1977, and the Desert Storm plaque was installed in 1995.

Another, different type of addition was made to the monument in 1965.  A large flower bed in the shape of a First Division patch was added to the monument as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s landscape plans to beautify the national capital city. The flower bed is located just east of the monument’s south steps.  The symbolism of the flower bed’s shape is clearly visible from the top of the monument’s steps, but less so at ground level, which often results in it being overlooked by visitors.

After obtaining Congressional approval to erect a monument on Federal property, the Society of the First Infantry Division raised all the funds for the original monument, as well as its additions. No taxpayer money was used. However, today the monument and grounds are maintained by the National Park Service.

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Marine Corps Base Quantico

Long holiday weekends provide me with opportunities to venture out of the city to places in the local area that I normally would be unable to ride to on my usual lunchtime bike rides. So for a Memorial Day weekend ride, I chose to go to Marine Corps Base Quantico. Also known as MCB Quantico, it is a United States Marine Corps installation located in Virginia, near the town of Triangle (MAP), covering nearly 55,148 acres of southern Prince William County, northern Stafford County, and southeastern Fauquier County.

MCB Quantico is near the Potomac River approximately 35 miles south of D.C. The area was originally inhabited by the Patowomacks tribe in the 16th century. The name “Quantico” is credited to come from an Algonquian Native American term, and has been translated to mean “by the large stream.” It was not visited by European explorers until the summer of 1608, with settlement beginning later that year. More than two centuries later, in 1816, the Marine Corps first visited the site.  And just over a century after that, in 1917, Marine Barracks, Quantico was established on some of the land currently occupied by today’s base. At that time, Marine Barracks occupied just over 5,000 acres and the personnel consisted of 91 enlisted men and four officers. In 1942, an additional 50,000 acres were purchased by the Federal government and added to the barracks, making up what is now the base.

The MCB Quantico community currently consists of 12,000 military and civilian personnel, including families. The majority of that is made up by the Corps’ Combat Development Command, which develops strategies for Marine combat. It is also home of the Marine Corps University, where virtually all Marine officers receive their basic training, as well as enlisted technicians from many different disciplines. It has a budget of around $300 million and is the home of:  the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School; the Marine Corps Research Center, which pursues equipment research and development, especially telecommunications, for the Marine Corps, and; the Marine Corps Brig, a military prison.

The base was designated as part of the Quantico Marine Corps Base Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. This district includes 122 buildings, two landscapes, a sculpture, and a water tower located within the base. And a replica of The United States Marine Corps War Memorial, depicting the 2nd U.S. flag-raising on Iwo Jima, stands at the entrance to the base.

MCB Quantico is the home of major training institutions for military and Federal law enforcement agencies as well, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service Headquarters, the Army Criminal Investigative Division Headquarters, and the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations Headquarters. The FBI Academy and the FBI Laboratory, the principal training and research facilities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the principal training facility for the Drug Enforcement Administration, are also located on the base.

The long, open roads, the many miles of maintained running and biking trails, and the general lack of vehicle traffic on the base, except an occasional tank crossing the road, make it a safe and ideal place for a weekend bike ride.  The undeveloped nature of the area also provides opportunities for wildlife viewing, including white-tailed deer and wild turkey, which I have seen almost every time I have been on base.  I’m fortunate that I have access and am allowed to ride there.  Unfortunately, I find myself unable to recommend it as a riding destination for others, but only because much of the base is restricted from public access.  So if you want to go there, I suggest you check in advance about the areas of the base, if any, where you will be allowed access.

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NOTE:  Due to security concerns there is currently very limited public access to Marine Corps Base Quantico.