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How Do They Do It?

graphic with tomb of unknown solider


“There’s a graveyard near the White House

Where the Unknown Soldier lies,

And the flowers here are sprinkled

With the tears from mother’s eyes.”

-The Unknown Soldier by Billy Rose

21 Steps. Turn East. Count to 21. Turn North. Count to 21. 21 Steps. Turn East. Count to 21. Turn North. Count to 21. 21 Steps. Repeat.

Over and over. Back and forth in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

24 hours each day and 7 days of every week. Rain, snow, heat, wind, and storms. Nothing stops those 21 steps.

It’s not a performance. It’s not a ceremony. It’s a reverent show of respect for soldiers who never came home to rest.

The guards stand sentry in respect and remembrance.

They place their weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that he or she stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

It is powerful.

I went there this past weekend with my family and I watched the guard perform her duty:

21 Steps. Turn East. Count to 21. Turn North. Count to 21. 21 Steps. Turn East. Count to 21. Turn North. Count to 21. 21 Steps. Repeat.

Over and over. Back and forth. It struck me how much mindfulness goes into that job. How the man or woman who stands guard over our most revered Tomb, the Tomb that signifies so many lives lost, must be fully focused on the task at hand.

These soldiers are singularly focused on ONE thing.


For the 30-60 minutes they hold this posting, they can’t let their minds stray, they can’t think about what’s for dinner or rehash that old argument. The weight of the memories of so many lost lays on their shoulders, and if they misstep, if they miscount, that honor is shaken. It is a burden that is so heavy to bear.

As I watched the repetitive steps of the guard I couldn’t help but think about life as a military spouse. We spouses carry the weight of so many things that civilian friends have a hard time understanding. Like the Sentries, we stand guard, watching over our soldiers and our families through emotional and physical tempests.

Do military spouses know how to practice this kind of mindfulness? Can they tap into the strength that is already inside of them? I looked around and saw other people watching this solemn process. Most of them had their phones out or were checking their watches. They were THERE but were they really PRESENT?

We multitask like champions. We make lists and meal plans while we are on the phone. We write texts and check Facebook while we are talking to friends. Even our exercise time is interrupted by our buzzing wrists and I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time sitting in silence. We are conditioned for external stimulation and it has robbed us of the blessings of being fully present at any given moment.

Veteran’s Spouse Project team works internally to take moments of being in the present during our team meetings. Wendy will often lead us in a guided meditation or encourage us to practice mindfulness with doodling in our notebooks. We have found that it leads to a more productive team and calmer lives.

Now we want to give that gift to you. Will you accept it and allow yourself a moment to be present fully and completely?

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Veterans Spouse Project (VSP) is the only nonprofit arts organization in the nation working to give voice to the experiences of military spouses through theatre and expressive arts. Learn more about how to share, connect, listen and create with us in your community. 

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