Tomb Guard Soldier makes a difference on and off duty
December 5, 2011
Sgt. Dontae Skywalker, relief commander for the Tomb of the Unknowns, doesn't just give his time to protecting one of the most solemn memorials in the National Capital Region, he also gives his time to young inner-city kids.
Growing up in the inner-city of Chicago, Skywalker knows what it's like to grow up in a rough neighborhood. He understands how certain lifestyles can create a culture of violence. It's because of this perception that he goes to schools and talks to children about not giving in to the stereotype so they can make something of themselves.
"When I go to schools and talk with kids, I actually talk to them about life. I don't talk too much about the military, I let them know what I've done before the military," said Skywalker.
Having graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus with a degree in sports management, Skywalker was the first on his mother's side to complete a college degree.
For someone who says he has come from poverty he's accomplished quite a bit. "A lot of kids don't have guidance, so I would like to extend that helping hand to let them know they aren't alone," he said.
Skywalker said he knows he can't help everyone he talks to, but just touching one person and helping them make it worthwhile to him.
Before joining the military, Skywalker was a public school teacher for two years and in that time was also a head coach for a Catholic school.
"God led me to the military," said Skywalker. "I didn't know why he led me to the military until I was in Kuwait getting ready to go into Iraq."
He said he woke up one day in a hot sweat, knowing he needed to be more humble. It's not that he was cocky, he explained, but he had a chip on his shoulder. Being an African-American from the inner-city, he felt he wasn't fitting people's perception of him. He was being stepped on and pushed over.
"I felt no matter how straight a line I kept I didn't get credit," said Skywalker. "When God showed me my vision, I realized I need to be more humble and to use my life lesson to help others."
Ultimately, his time led him to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a station that has helped him to be humble.
It isn't always easy to be humble, though, especially when one of your favorite National Football League teams names a play after you. Just a few weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers unexpectedly stopped by the Arlington National Cemetery to view a changing of the guard and learn about the tomb. At the time, Skywalker was with an Honor Flight Network group, and it wasn't until they left that he was able give the team a five- to ten-minute presentation about the tomb.
A diehard Chicago Bears fan, Skywalker has also always been a fan of the 49ers, supporting the team that former Bears players Mike Singletary, and now Jim Harbaugh, took over as coach.
"When I got off work Sunday morning [Nov. 6], I went home and took a power nap. Around 10:30 a.m., I saw myself on ESPN ... standing next to Harbaugh around the amphitheater," said Skywalker.
It was about that time that he received a call from the Soldier who escorted the 49ers, asking if they could give his contact information to Harbaugh.
"Harbaugh was impressed by my speech and wanted me by the sideline while they played the Redskins," said Skywalker. "He was very impressed with what we do [at the tomb] and my name caught his attention."
The coach liked Skywalker's name so much and was so impressed with the Soldier that at the 49ers versus the Giants game they unveiled a "Two-Jet Skywalker," pass play that gained the team 16 yards and set up a field goal.
"One thing you learn about this job is that you have to remain humble," said Skywalker. "For the most part I'm very touched and appreciative that the 49ers understand, respect and appreciate all the work we do protecting the Tomb of the Unknowns."
That wasn't the end of Skywalker's run in with celebrities. On Nov. 8, those who watch the television show "NCIS" could see him performing the 8 a.m. changing of the guard in an episode entitled "Engaged, Part 1." Actor Mark Harmon playing Navy Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, had a few scenes where the tomb was the backdrop to the story.
Through his time at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Skywalker has become the third tomb guard food specialist to earn a Tomb Sentinel Badge. Upon completion of his time in the Army, he plans on working in the sports industry, either in the National Basketball Association or the NFL, where he can put his degree to use but also keep up his motivational speaking on the side.