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Standing Sentinel: The Tomb of the Unknown Solder: Making a difference

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I met Beau Doboszenski when he was attending a workshop at Rancho Strozzi Institute. He joined the Aikido class that night. After class while we were in circle, Richard Strozzi-Heckler announced that Beau had been a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (technically know as the "Tomb of the Unknowns") located in Arlington National Cemetery.

I visited the Tomb with my parents when I was younger. I remember being visibly moved with the power of what I saw. The Sentinels were there on eternal duty ro honor and respect for our fallen unknown heroes. And here that evening after Aikido class I was seated a couple feet on the mat from a man who had been one of those Sentinels.

After class, I asked Beau a few questions about his duty: how were you selected; what was doing this duty and how long did the duty last. From these initial quick questions after class I realized getting his story would be the perfect piece to post on July 4th. Fortunately, Beau was ready to answer my questions and provide photographs.

So here are my questions, and Beau’s answers:

Q: Tell us about your martial arts background, especially your Aikido? When did you start training and where? And what rank do you hold now?

A: “I’ve been studying some form of martial arts from the age of twelve. I started in Tae Kwon Do. From there I studied several forms of jiu jitsu before I began Aikido. I’ll admit I’m a martial arts geek. Since starting Aikido, I’ve practiced Filipino martial arts like Kali, Panantukan, Japanese sword arts like Mugai Ryu, and ground arts like Brazilian jiujitsu.

I started studying Aikido at the Avalon Arts Center in Fair Oaks, California. Avalon Arts Center was affiliated with the California Aikido Association under Shihan Frank Doran. I began my Aikido study just a couple of weeks from separating from the United States Army in February 2004.

My first couple of sessions with Avalon was quite amusing actually. I didn’t keep a gi and hakama in my luggage when I moved across the country, choosing instead to leave that in a box for the movers. So my first several sessions with Avalon were done in sweats. I’d had almost ten years of throwing arts by the time I first stepped on the mat at Avalon, but in my sweats and t-shirt, nobody believed me. I was treated with very ginger kid gloves in the training. I remember that it was a student named Phoenix, who was a pretty rough and tumble biker, was the first who just simply told me that no one believed I had the background I said I did. So on the next technique, I dusted him. He hit the mat with a big break fall and a kiai, popped back up to his feet with a giant smile and looked me in the eyes saying: ‘You do know what you’re doing!’

Being a man fresh out of the service with my eyes only on a new wife and college, I was able to be hugely dedicated to learning Aikido. I spent between 10 and 20 hours per week in Avalon, taking class and helping around the dojo. My learning curve was very steep and by the end of 2005, I tested for Shodan with Shihan Frank Doran. One of my favorite memories of Avalon, was helping my dear friend Kevin Kemper, now the Sensei of Aikido of Roseville to construct the new mat. I was honored to lay down mats and have the first practice session at Aikido of Roseville just a few years ago and since then, Aikido of Roseville has grown beautifully. I was able to take part in Cynthia Hayashi Sensei’s seminar there in June, and participated in the dojo’s first Shodan test.

Since leaving California at the end of 2005, I haven’t had the rich Aikido training opportunities in Minnesota, so now I practice Aikido only sparingly when I can get to one of the dojos that are scattered around the state. Most of my practice is with Filipino arts with Instructor Mike Duffy and ground work from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, with black belt Gina Franssen of X2 Fitness, in which I am a novice.”

Q: And when you were in the military, I understand you applied and were chosen to stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Can you share what was involved and what the experience was like for you?

A: I am badge number 507 at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I walked from 2002 to 2004. The process for becoming a Tomb Sentinel is very challenging. All sentinel candidates are volunteers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” stationed at Fort Myers, Virginia. We initially go through a Sentinel crash course to give every candidate an idea of what the training will require and how little attention to detail we were currently giving our ceremonial work. For me, I remember getting about twelve hours of sleep for the entire week, a couple per night, trying to even begin understanding the huge learning curve that was required to become a Sentinel.

Once you’re accepted onto a Relief, then the training really begins in earnest. There are three Reliefs, each separated by a height range, so that the Sentinels all look roughly the same size. First Relief is the tallest, Third Relief is the shortest, and I was right in between as heights go, so I was in Second Relief. The Relief’s work what is called a nine day Fireman’s schedule, so that’s twenty-four hours on duty, followed by twenty-four hours off, twenty-four on, twenty-four off, twenty-four on, then four days off. When on duty, there is someone on the plaza, walking and rendering honors to the Unknowns, while in the Quarters, or the duty housing for the Sentinels beneath the plaza, a Relief Commander is monitoring the walk from cameras and other Sentinels are preparing for walks or helping with other duties. Every new Sentinel candidate is assigned a Sponsor, whose job it is to insure the proper training of the new candidate. My sponsor was Sgt. Paul Bosso, a man known for his impeccable outside technique and absolutely perfect uniform prep skills.

For a New Man, which is what all new Sentinels are called, regardless of name, you are primarily responsible for night hour walking, where you can practice your outside performance skills, doing final prep for the Sentinels for outside work like guard changes, and learning all of the information a Sentinel must memorize. That total information is roughly eighteen pages of information that a Sentinel must know, verbatim. All of that, while keep the Quarters in pristine condition for higher military or diplomatic visitors. A New Man is at the beck and call of any badged Sentinel at any time, day or night, and anything that the Sentinel wants, the New Man will do. There were many times, while learning where certain important people were buried in the cemetery, that a Sentinel would give me a piece of paper and pencil and tell me to go find a certain headstone, like Audie Murphy, or Michael Smith of the Challenger Shuttle, get a rubbing to prove I had found the correct stone and come back.

These were of course, timed challenges and if you missed your time, well, things could get busy for you later on.

While learning the Sentinel skills of uniform prep, outside performance and cemetery knowledge, you were involved in scheduled tests.

If you failed a test, you were given one nine-day work cycle to fix the problem and be tested again. Upon a second failure, you were dismissed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The test for your badge is a one-chance test. Fail that one, and you are dismissed. I’ve seen several of those, and they’re quite painful, because by the time you are testing for your badge, you’ve been living, breathing, eating, and sleeping the Tomb for six to seven months, and the failure is devastating.

For my badge test, I remember not sleeping the night before. I worked on my uniform with Sgt. Bosso until four hours before my Uniform Inspection Test, and then I started getting dressed. I was fully dressed and ready to go two hours before the Uniform Inspection Test began and I didn’t move an inch from the point I stepped into my shoes. To give you an idea how intense this inspection is, at the Tomb, it’s not a sight inspection like the rest of the military, we use seamstress rulers and measure to the millimeter or what we referred to as a “tick.” And when my examiners were testing my shoes, they were lying on the ground, with magnifying glasses and flashlights looking for any imperfections. For the badge test, you are allowed two mistakes or ‘gigs.’ That’s a medal being off by a millimeter, or a smudge on a medal. Two. Get three and you are done.

It was during this period of time, my Tomb Sentinel training, that I was dating my girlfriend, now my wife of ten years, Jessica. A typical date consisted of me coming over to her house, turning on a movie or the television. She watches, while I would shine shoes or memorize cemetery knowledge. She must have seen something in me because I couldn’t have been much fun during this stage of our relationship.

Most people think of the Tomb and the Sentinels that guard it as a fun sight to see on a trip to the nation’s capital, but they generally fail to see or understand it’s true importance to the character of the nation. The public generally appreciates the honor and pageantry of the Guard Change, but miss the gravity of the Tomb. The Sentinels of the sixties understood it far more than even most Sentinels do today. In World War I, there were more than a thousand unknown or unidentified dead, and all of them on a continent that many family members of those dead would never see. Those dead gave not only their lives, but also their identities for their nation. In World War II there were thousands upon thousands more. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became a memorial, a gravesite that the family could come to for closure, knowing that their loved one would never be coming home. The older Tomb Sentinels used to tell stories of how women or families would come right up to where they were standing, walking, rendering honors and say: thank you, I know that’s my husband/brother/son in there.

For me, I really grasped the gravity of the Tomb when I was working one day and it started to rain. Rain is one of the great enemies of the Sentinel. A good Virginia downpour will guarantee a ruined uniform and many, many hours of work to repair it. I was not walking at the time, but the Relief Commander was watching the video screens and saw that the Sentinel on duty was out walking in the downpour. The commander asked me to go and ‘box him’ or tell the Sentinel to go into the covered box and wait out the rain. I put on my jacket, grabbed an umbrella and headed up. I got out to the small fenced in space to the South of the mat where the Sentinel was walking and I made the symbol with my hands for the walking Sentinel to go into the box, but he ignored me. I almost started to say: ‘box!’ to the Sentinel when I noticed that the steps looking over the plaza weren’t empty. Generally when it rains in the summertime at Arlington, it pours! It isn’t a gentle rain, and this day was no exception. When that happens, the steps in front of the building where the Tomb is located, and where the audience for the Tomb sits or stands and watches, empties rapidly, as tourists seek out shelter.

Today though, there was one man left, and he was in uniform. Not being in uniform and having a jacket on, the Sentinels not doing direct walking work are generally overlooked moving through the cemetery, so I left the fenced in area to the South of the plaza and moved up the stairs somewhere behind this man. The man was a Marine, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Army, not that the distinction makes much of a difference except that so many people get it wrong. And as I started to approach, a woman came from the North side of the plaza, from under the trees, she had a very small umbrella and it wasn’t doing much to protect her. She didn’t pay me any notice and went straight to the Marine, gently pulling on his arm, asking him to come out of the rain. The man refused, saying: ‘If he (the Sentinel) can walk in the rain, I can stand in it.’ It was at this point that I noticed that the man was missing a leg. I gave them my bigger umbrella and went back inside.”

Q: You mentioned this is done 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, rain or shine, through storms and every kind of weather?

A: “Yes. In the summer it can easily break triple digit temperatures, and we’re walking in dark blue, steam pressed, winter wool uniforms. In the winter, it’s the same clothes that our infantry and cavalry wore at the time of the civil war, and they’re not much warmer than you might imagine. The “box” or the three-sided hutch on the plaza, is outfitted with heaters, these get especially used during cold winter nights. I’ve walked through blizzards and had other Sentinels walk through a hurricane (Irene). If you called to the Tomb Quarters right now, there will be a Sentinel walking the mat, rendering honors.”

Q: What was your most profound take away from this experience (or take a ways)?

A: “There are several take a ways. First, the importance of tradition and honor. It is crucial that we honor the past and the sacrifices that were made that give us the opportunity to freely speak and think. Traditions give us grounding, or something to return to when we lose our way, a standard to which the wise and the honest may repair. The Tomb is all about honor and tradition, and reminding our nation that we are all together in respecting the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform.

The next takeaway is that our effort and attention matters, that our efforts will always follow our attention. For the Sentinel, their goal is perfection and that no less than perfection is required to demonstrate our love and respect for the Unknowns. It takes tremendous effort, all the time, to maintain this standard. Many Sentinels get burned out from their time at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, injuries from repetitive motion, walking in heavy wooden soled shoes on marble and unnatural ramrod straight posture causes problems in knees, backs, necks, and shoulders, but every Sentinel goes home to rest and a hot meal, every day. Many other soldiers will never go home, it was important for me to remember that.”

Q: You recently trained at Two Rock Aikido with Richard Strozzi-Heckler. How did this come about?

A: “My employer, Larry Yatch, retired Navy SEAL and founder of Sealed Mindset, recommended the School of Embodied Leadership from the Strozzi Institute to help me improve my management and leadership skills. He learned about it from SI Instructor and friend Alex Portnoy. It was my personal pleasure to train at Two Rock Aikido during my weeklong SOEL training. Sensei Strozzi-Heckler has an amazing and powerful mat presence, and his mindfulness in training is palpable. ‘For the Sake of What’ isn’t simply a dojo slogan, but the ‘why’ of every session and technique.”

Q: And did your Aikido training and background provide a foundation or context for your duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a then for your work later with Richard Strozzi-Heckler? If so, how?

A: “Not for the Tomb Sentinel work, as I hadn’t started Aikido at that point, but just after. As for my work with SI [Strozzi Institute], it was absolutely valuable. I personally, had developed a posture that was always defensive. My shoulders were forward, my eyes intense, and my words constantly in search of effect. It was like I was constantly wearing armor, ready to defend myself. I had forgotten how to live in my dignity, lengthen my spine and open my chest, or connect to another, including to my family. Aikido is all about the harmonization of energy and in order to harmonize, you must first connect.”

Q: Finally, how do you see yourself applying these experiences in your everyday life with your family, your work and your community?

A: “By trying to really connect with people I will actually learn what they are really saying. It’s interesting that I’ve found that people are constantly saying things with their mouths that have nothing to do with what their body posture or actions are actually telling you. People have been so much more open with me since the training with Richard Strozzi-Heckler at SOEL.

I have had conversations in just the last week that went beyond anything that I’d ever expected. People are craving really honest connections, and are lost in the world of short text messages and thirty second commercials. When they actually come across someone who really wants to hear what they have to say, their physical changes are obvious. It is fun to watch their posture change as they find someone open to hearing them, they sit or stand straighter, they actually look you in the eyes, and the distractions of the world have just a little less of an impact.

Harmonizing energy, the goal of Aikido, therefore becomes more than a martial practice.”

Thank you Beau for these incredible answers, and for your service to our country and for making a difference.

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