Sentinel Kyle Obrosky’s calculated movement at the Tomb of the Unknowns defines respect for service members who surrendered their lives in battle without losing their country’s admiration.
The U.S. Army sergeant marches 21 steps across a black rubber mat positioned in front of the white marble tomb. He faces the markers for 21 seconds before executing a return pass down the mat. It alludes to the 21-gun salute, the highest honor given a member of the military. Each break in the maneuver is chronicled with a signature click from metal heel plates.
His perfectly tailored gold-trimmed blue uniform, pristine M-14, white gloves and the glass-like polish of his shoes is unique to the Tomb Guards, a special platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard.”
The tomb’s sentinels are replaced at regular intervals in an orchestrated transition of soldiers and weapons, allowing elite members of the regiment to perform this duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has been guarded continuously this way since 1937 by less than 600 men and women.
“It’s a great job and honor to be here,” said Obrosky, a 2005 graduate of Topeka West High School. “This is going to be the most honorable thing I’ll ever do.”
The garden of meticulously spaced stones across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., chronicles the compounding price paid by Americans engaged in service to the country. World War I. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Persian Gulf. Iraq. Afghanistan. More than 300,000 men and women rest in the nation’s most hallowed burial ground. The Tomb of the Unknowns holds remains of nameless troops — each a recipient of the Medal of Honor — killed in World War I, World War II and Korea. Remains of a Vietnam veteran were identified and removed, but not replaced.
Obrosky, who cherished his 4 1/2 years of duty at Arlington National Cemetery, made his final walk Oct. 5. The occasion was marked by placing red long-stemmed roses at the marble sarcophagus and slabs he protected.
“These soldiers made the supreme sacrifice,” he said. “They are known only to God. They did not lose their country.”
Instead of embarking on a distinguished career in the U.S. military, Obrosky easily could have been a high school dropout. He had moved around as a child and had a strained relationship with his father. His grades hovered in the “D” range as a freshman. Academics took a back seat to just about everything else.
That was before joining the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Topeka West and falling into the guiding hands of three men.
“Those three guys really took care of me,” Obrosky said. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.”
His mentors were the two current JROTC instructors at Topeka West, retired Maj. Chuck Wright and retired 1st Sgt. Don Munn, along with Stan Wagstaff, who was principal at Topeka West and served as a colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard.
They all recall the evolution of Obrosky’s priorities. They revel in the path their former student has taken in life. That he is succeeding in the military is that much more satisfying.
“When he walked in the door he was nothing but trouble,” Munn said. “He was a typical lanky, young, wet-behind-the-ears kid.”
One of Wright’s assignments in the Army during the early 1980s was with the “Old Guard,” and he spoke with Obrosky about high expectations of the regiment’s members. After attending a show with other JROTC members in Cincinnati involving soldiers from the “Old Guard,” Obrosky dedicated himself to realigning his life to conform to standards necessary to enter the Army and compete for a slot as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Obrosky would arrive at school at 5:45 a.m. for drill practices and sometimes not leave until 6:30 p.m. after study hall.
“He was a guy who came in with a broken heart and broken spirit,” Wright said. “By the time he was a senior, he had amassed a very respectable grade-point average, graduated from high school and joined the Army.”
Becoming a guard
Wagstaff said he helped create the Army JROTC program at Topeka West because there were students who could benefit from a better understanding of leadership, self-discipline and accountability. Obrosky was in that category.
“Kyle is a shining star,” he said. “I don’t know if I could be more proud of a student.” Odds were stacked against Obrosky as he entered the Army upon graduation in 2005. Only about one-fifth of volunteers for ceremonial guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns are accepted for training. A fraction of those soldiers become full-fledged guards.
After basic training, he managed to secure a slot with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army. It was formed in 1784.
His specialized guard training took 10 months and pushed him beyond the ordinary. During the initial part of his time with the “Old Guard,” he wasn’t allowed to speak or watch television. He memorized 16 pages of information about Arlington National Cemetery. After passing a probation period and series of tests, he was sworn in as the 555th guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. His nickname became Triple Nickel.
In addition to service at the tomb, the regiment is the escort for the president of the United States and participates in final honors for service members past and present.
Obrosky is preparing for redeployment in December to Fort Huachuca, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, in Arizona. The Tomb Guard badge recognizing his prestigious service will travel with him, but it can be withdrawn at any time during the remainder of his life for conduct bringing discredit on the Tomb of the Unknowns.
He leaves hallowed ground in Virginia with a sense of accomplishment borne of dedication first discovered at Topeka West.
“It’s a great building block for being in the Army,” Obrosky said. “We always say you can tell the pride of a country by the way they honor their fallen heroes.”