The Impact of 12 Minutes

4 months ago

by SFC (Ret) Chelsea Porterfield (2020-21)

The Impact of 12 Minutes

It’s 7:20am on the 29th of September 2021, SPC Torres is quietly standing at attention in the mirrors, she has natural command presence. Her crisp white collar pressed exact along the seam, a tight triangle of a double windsor nestled exactly parallel to the top notch of her white shirt, a perfect 90 degrees. Everything is as exactly as it should be, on the outside.

As I am reconfirming measurements to the 1/64th of an inch, I look up and quietly ask in the chaotic noise of the morning routine, “How do you feel?”

She takes a deep breath, “I’m good, I’m just really nervous. I want this to be perfect.”

With one last tuck of her blouse into her ceremonial belt I tell her, “You look good today, your bun is perfect. This is going to be a great Guard Change.”

SFC (Ret) Chelsea Porterfield (2020-21)

If I would have known then, what I know now, I probably would have made this last tribute to our nation’s unknowns a public event. I’ve been fortunate over the last few months to reflect on my years of service, and through research it’s been eye opening to read some of the statistics about women, ethnicity, and equality outside of the Armed Forces.

Over the last 100 years, women have gained a substantial amount of rights that have always been a given right to men. In 2020, women earned 84% of what a man did, and the Hispanic population is even substantially lower. Only .72% of Sentinels are women, that’s .72% of the 1% of the American Population that has served the Armed Forces. Now, having completed training and being awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge I can’t speak on why more haven’t tried. Female representation and impact of presence over the years can probably attest to the less than 1%.

Note the the readers: I take a deep breath, tap the exit button one last time, push the door open, and take my last first, and perhaps one of the hardest, step on this journey.

It took me almost 19 years before I fully understood how much female representation matters. A small school group visited the Tomb last summer while I was scheduled to change the guard. At the end of the 12 minutes, I walked back into the Quarters and I hear one of the escorts ask the visiting group, “What was your favorite part of the ceremony?” Without any hesitation, an excited voice from a small girl who couldn’t have been any older than 9 yelled over the top of her classmates, “When the girl came out!” Hearing this burst of excitement completely changed the way I viewed myself. My position at this moment in time, is bigger than me. This isn’t about anyone of us, but the generations to come.

12 minutes is an average amount of time for a full Changing of the Guard. In those 12 minutes, every time, all three guards come together as one, in a harmonious ceremonial tribute that not only moves visitors but ourselves.

Those 12 minutes, that took place at 8:00am on the 29th of September with SPC Torres, SPC Keough and myself, unintentionally became a globally celebrated mark in history and spark for possibility. Our three figures outlined on white plaza stone, centered before all the Unknowns of our greatest wars, captivate visitors today at the National Archives here in Washington D.C. One picture with a very small caption to it quickly changed to different narrative that reached 156 million people, 150 different countries and has been an example of “possibility” for others.

At the very heart of our mission and collective diligence, we (Tomb Guards) regardless of gender or race represent the three that are buried on the Memorial Amphitheater Plaza and what their life’s poetry could have been. Representing the opportunity, they were never given.

So, to the 156 million people who saw a glimpse of those 12 minutes, it’s 7:58AM on the 29th of September SPC Keough is standing rigid, sharp, and unwavering in front of me. It’s deafening silent and the air is overwhelmingly palpable with emotion. The only person you can hear is the person who is keeping time as they are our constant in this very moment.

“One minute!” As he shouts the time from the ready room.

SFC (Ret) Chelsea Porterfield (2020-21) inspects the on-coming Sentinel

I turn and face SPC Keough. She is standing motionless and unshakable, but I can see that she is about to cry. This is my last changing of the guard. My last time feeling the sturdy ground beneath my oxfords. The last time hearing the rain meet the marble. My last time seeing the rust line of dedication on the plaza. My last time honoring the casualties of war and dreaming up long prosperous lives. My last time to honor them to the best of my ability, and the last time being with my team. SPC Torres is on the mat and in confident she has executed beautifully the last 29 minutes. I’m about to post SPC Keough. This will be the first time, in 100 years, that this traditional ceremony is being performed with just women. The gravity of recognizing this significance is heavier now than it has ever been. I’m going to give them my best, that’s all I can do.

The Rust Line
The marking on the plaza from the soles of the Sentinels show the dedicated history of duty since 1926, referred to as "the rust line".

“30 seconds!”

I turn to her, and we have our very last exchange.

“SPC Keough, I’m out the door.”

“I’m right behind you, Sergeant”

“Have a great walk.”

“Have a great change, Sergeant.”

“I’ll see you in the inspection block.” I turn to face the back of the door, I see the years of wear on the handle. My last time touching this. I wait to hear the first chime of the bell, everything seems rhythmic, as it should be. My physiological responses are calm, but my voice is shaky and my breath shallow. I take a deep breath and whisper just so she and I can hear, “Reaching from earth to heaven above, a lasting tribute to one man’s love.”

“I’ll see you in the inspection block, Keough.”

“Bells!!!” Shouted the timekeeper from the ready room.

“I’ll be there, Sergeant.”

All Female Guard Change
SFC (Ret) Chelsea Porterfield (2020-21) conducts the first all-female Guard Change at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Note the readers: I take a deep breath, tap the exit button one last time, push the door open, and take my last first, and perhaps one of hardest, step on this journey.

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