By Specialist Preston Millison, (2014 – Present)
On the night of February 27th 2016 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak at a screening of Ethan Morse’ documentary “The Unknowns: A Living Documentary” at the University of California San Diego’s Price Center Theater. The documentary focuses on the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gives an in-depth overview of the grueling selection process that soldiers undergo to obtain the prestigious honor of becoming a Sentinel.
Steven Padilla, a Field Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), reached out to Ethan in hope that they could help in showing the documentary to the large veteran community in San Diego. Steve, who was a Combat Engineer (12B), had once thought about becoming a Sentinel, but was told by his Drill Sergeant that he was the wrong MOS and too short. After watching a trailer on the documentary, Steven felt “it takes a special person to guard the Tomb, and I wanted to find out more about who these men and women are. There is so much more going on that what the pubic see, and I wanted to bring this to the veterans and community so they could understand it as well.”
Steven reached out to his small IAVA team and the quickly found that it would cost up to $1000 to rent a documentary theater. “IAVA is small so we don’t have a large budget, but we do a lot with what little we have”. As veterans do, they started thinking outside the box, and found that the university Veterans Staff Association would pay the $600 for the universities theater, and help get the word out.
Not stopping there, Steven wanted to see if it were possible to bring current Sentinels to the event, because “having a current Sentinel would bring such authenticity to the event and a great chance to get to know them, and why they do what they do”. After formally reaching out the 3d United States Infantry (The Old Guard), there we surprised and honored to have a current Sentinel and the Sergeant of the Guard ordered to San Diego, as “it was an honor to knowing that they would leave that hallowed ground and come out” to be a part of the screening.
The Sergeant of the Guard, SFC Paul Basso, and I were selected by the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) First Sergeant to participate and it was nice to get away from the cold weather in Washington DC, and spend some time in sunny San Diego for three days.
SFC Basso, who used to live in Los Angeles, had been to San Diego before and made a point of taking me to the beach because, “he has never been west of Alabama”. Along the way we were able to stop by the USS Midway Museum which was a unique experience.
Over the three days we spent quality time with brother Tomb Guards. Former Sentinel Chad Cavanaugh (1993-98) is an artist and has multiple comic book series that need to be read by everyone. Former Sentinel Christopher “Colin” Anthony (2010-12) is featured in the documentary, and as Ethan said, “Having him there with his family was a true honor. He and his Mom told a story that will be released soon.”
The staff from IAVA brought us all out to California Pizza Kitchen for lunch before the screening, and it was like brothers hanging out for pizza before going to a documentary. For some of us it was a first meeting, but we quickly realized the bond of a unique brotherhood. Chad Cavanaugh said, “I had met Christopher twice and Ethan once before the screening. It was awesome seeing them again. It was the first time to meet Paul and Preston, but it’s always good when running into a Tomb Guard.”
The night of the screening there were approximately 70-100 people, mostly veterans, in attendance. As the director, Ethan Morse (2005-06), mentioned “This was an exclusive prescreening, but kind of low key and mostly to the Veteran community. We wanted to get their feedback to make the final changes/edits for release during May, in time for Memorial Day”.
The atmosphere was one of excitement and intrigue. The “Hollywood” arrival for some was “In my mini-van, with my wonderful wife and two daughters” said Chad Cavanaugh laughingly.
Several people approached me prior to the screening to ask questions about the duties of the guards and how I feel about guarding the Unknowns. It was good to be able to interact with the public outside of Arlington.
Once everyone settled into their seats and the documentary began and the atmosphere became quite solemn. It was interesting to watch the audience quietly whisper to each other in awe of what they were seeing and hearing. The documentary included detailed scenes of how trainees are thoroughly instructed on their rifle manual and their attitudes while on shift. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was described with excellent verbiage and camera work; the documentary was certainly shot in a professional manner. The progress from potential “new man” to passing the Phase 2 test was followed closely, and helped the audience grasp the new and unusual concept of extreme dedication. This characteristic is what I believe left the most impact on the audience’s minds.
At the conclusion of the documentary, the audience was very adamant to ask questions about the guard change and how long certain uniform items took to “get out the door”. After questions were over, several people approached me just to show the gratitude for what we do as Tomb Guards. This gesture helped solidify the place that the Unknowns hold in the hearts of Americans around the country, as they saw more information on the Unknowns themselves and walked away ‘touched’ individuals.
Chad summed up the experience by saying “It was fantastic. My family members (wife, oldest daughter, sister in law and brother in law, my IP attorney and his family) were blown away and now view me differently than before. They are aware that I’m a Tomb Guard, but had no idea what it took or fully meant to be a Tomb Guard. “
Ethan mentioned that there are special screenings being planned for Santa Barbara, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and New York. On Memorial Day a very special screening is planned in San Francisco at the Marine Memorial Hotel. He is also the process of signing theatrical distribution with the company GATHR (www.gathr.com), to help with the distribution of the documentary. “If any Tomb Guard wants to volunteer to be a local movie Capitan, pursue media about their service in Arlington, and then have a Q&A after the film about their service we would love to be in contact with them. “
Anyone interested in finding out more information could they please email Ethan at TheUnknownsMovie@gmail.com
I am honored to have had the opportunity to spread more public awareness about the Unknowns so that they may receive the attention and respect by the masses, and not just focus on the Tomb Guard.