NEW YORK – Dressed in their distinctive uniform and standing at full attention, one of the duties of the Greek Presidential Guard or Evzones is to maintain a round the clock vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in front of Parliament House in Athens.
The highly stylized walk during the Changing of the Guard demands an ability to raise their legs to shoulder height while balancing a 12 kilo (about 26.5 lbs.) M1 rifle tipped with a bayonet and wearing nail shod leather clogs that can weigh 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs.) each.
The Evzones carry out their duty in all weather conditions, and while dealing with over-enthusiastic tourists, and even riotous demonstrations including, on at least two occasions, exploding Molotov cocktails. Yet Evzones famously remain unflinching at all times and will not stand down unless ordered to do so.
This elite military unitthat embodies the ideals of Hellenism, honors the Greek community in the United Stateseach yearwhen theyappear in Greek Independence Day parades. The cheering crowds would probably be impressed to learn that among the Evzones is a 23-year-old Greek-Australian who deferred his higher education in the UK specifically to return to Greece in order to try out for the Evzones.
Although Jason Robertson was born and lived in Greece as a child, he grew up in a family entirely Anglo in nature and has spent all his adult life in the UK. He recently completed an undergraduate degree in London, attended a summer course at Harvard Business School and, if financing can be found, will be returning to do a Master’s at CASS City University in London in September.
Although national service is compulsory for Greek males, he could have easily avoided serving in the military, and yet was inspired to become an Evzone because of what they are and represent. Wanting to become a member of the Presidential Guard can easily be a dream too far. As is well-known, recruits must be over 6 feet (+1.87m) tall and the selection procedure is extremely rigorous. Of all the recruits conscripted into the Greek Army each year, only around 1 percent is ever chosen.
The internal training regime is so difficult that of those selected, no more than half ever have the honor of wearing the white kilt (400 hundred pleats representing 400 years of Ottoman occupation) and tailor-made clogs. Then there is the self-discipline and absolute dedication required to actually perform ceremonial duties, whether it be for the general public or visiting dignitaries, come rain or shine, day or night. Moreover, there is absolutely no financial incentive involved. Despite their onerous responsibilities and what they symbolize for the nation they serve, Evzones only make standard conscript pay of about 7 euro – or just $10 a month.
So why is Robertson’s story important? It is a sad fact that we live in an era in which the young are unengaged and therefore largely disenfranchised from their potential. The distractions of such things as on-line gaming and social media, in combination with high youth unemployment, and bleak job prospects brought on by the financial crisis have produced a generation of Greeks in limbo. The worst thing is that this apathy is self-sustaining. Robbed of targets and hope, today’s youth are in danger of remaining unfulfilled and unproductive as they grow old in a society that appears to have lost its sense of purpose.
In such discouraging and disorienting times, Robertson found purpose in the Greek ideal and its proud history. While the obligation of military service for most others is viewed as something of a nuisance, he is among the few who regard it as a constructive learning experience. Robertson is honored to wear a uniform that means so much and to have the opportunity to do his duty as a Greek citizen.
Though he was raised on Anglo principles and has spent his adult life abroad, he is one of a select few representing Greece at the New York Greek Independence Day Parade marching up 5th Avenue this year. Along with his fellow Evzones, he epitomizes the essence of what it is to be Greek – proud and determined, capable and resilient, the very ideals that founded Western civilization. It is therefore hoped that his story can inspire young people in Greece and those of Greek descent living abroad who share the same values and love of the homeland.