A new four-part documentary series set to begin screening Christmas Day on Amazon traces its roots to the service of two Army veterans of the Old Guard and a commitment to bring that storied history to life.
Army Spc. Ethan Morse, 38, who still serves in the California Army National Guard and former Spc. Neal Schrodetzki, 35, met back in 2004, new soldiers in on the casket team at the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard.”
Both bonded quickly, sharing not just their soldier lives but also dreams of making movies when they got out of the Army.
Those ever-ready soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, ride horses in official caisson duty for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and, of course, perform on the Army’s remarkable Drill Team.
That duty would test them both and also draw them back to make first a film about duty at the Tomb and later the forthcoming docuseries on the many facets of the Old Guard itself.
The first film, “The Unknowns,” focused on the high-profile job that the Old Guard has at the Tomb and provided an opportunity for the pair to honor one of their shared mentors, whom they met while serving in the unit. The new series, “Honor Guard,” dives deeper into the story.
Sgt. Adam Dickmyer, a squad leader at the unit, demanded perfection from his soldiers but also knew when to let down his own guard to better mentor his subordinates.
After a successful tour at the Old Guard, working both at the Tomb and later as a casket leader for the Joint Services State Funeral Team from 2007 to 2009, then pinning on staff sergeant’s stripes, Dickmyer deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, later leading a platoon.
As their squad leader progressed through his Army career, Morse and Schrodetzki concluded their service and went on to pursue their filmmaking dreams, Morse in California and Schrodetzki back home in Arizona.
It was Schrodetzki who rang his Old Guard buddy Morse when he learned the news — Dickmyer had been killed in combat on Oct. 28, 2010, when an improvised explosive device detonated near him while on foot patrol.
“Never expected anything like that,” Morse said, “because he was larger than life, you know? I mean, he was just so strong, so commanding, such a great leader. I always thought he would be there.”
Their combined experience with the unit and losing Dickmyer only strengthened the resolve of the pair to make a documentary showing the difficult work of those who guard the tomb.
But that 2016 documentary, while a deep dive into the history of the site and demands of the job, was still only a fraction of what the Old Guard does. The pair knew there was much more to tell.
Beginning in 2018, after getting behind-the-scenes access to their old stomping grounds, they began interviewing and shadowing Old Guard members, especially new soldiers trying to make the cut.
At first, they’d only planned a single, short film about the caisson unit that cares for and uses the horses in official funerals. But with additional fundraising efforts they were able to expand the project far beyond what they’d expected.
While they both had a lot of work to do. The return, both for “The Unknowns” and for their new, more ambitious four-part series “Honor Guard” brought back memories.
“It doesn’t change,” Schrodetzki said. “That’s kind of the cool part about it. Some things, like the PX moved. For the most part it’s all exactly the same.”
For Morse, it’s always an emotional trip, both good and bad.
“Every time we go back there, the whole gamut of emotions from sadness to despair to pride,” he said. “Man, I wish I was still stationed here.”
Off and on for the next year, they put together enough footage for four, one-hour episodes on the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Starting with the “Caisson,” the horse-mounted unit that escorts the casket in official burials.
It’s followed by episode two, “The Regiment,” which details how the 3rd Infantry was assigned its current job and follows new soldiers as the join the unit. The series is capped off with episodes three, “Drill Team” and four “Full Honors.”
They needed a voice to narrate their story. They’d hoped for someone big, an instantly recognizable voice, like Sam Elliott, to read their script. But that seemed too far fetched for their outside project.
Morse bounced their offer around Hollywood, and after a few false starts and an unforeseen introduction to Elliott’s agent, he figured, why not try?
The agent had them overnight mail the script to Elliott, who read it along with a personal letter they shared. About 10 days later, Elliott said he’d love to do it.
Once footage and voice over was in the can, the job was only partway done. The pair had editing, promotion and more to do as they pushed to have their project released.
Then, COVID-19 hit.
With travel restricted, Schrodetzki relied on Army public affairs to share key footage of certain sequences, helping pull together the final pieces of a nearly two-year project.
One thing that surprised the duo was that there hadn’t been such a deep-dive film into the revered unit and its mission. They both learned what they could in the early 2000s through Army pamphlets.
They hope the detailed, behind-the-scenes look at their former unit and its 365-day-a-year mission honoring the fallen and guarding hallowed grounds will better tell the story of the unit, the soldiers and the duty that they perform.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.