Military Life

6 misconceptions about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sentinels

(Elizabeth Fraser)

There are no soldiers in the United States Army that are as dedicated to their mission as the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It's a grueling position that demands an extreme attention to detail in order to honor not only the unknown soldiers but all who have fallen.

The sentinels follow a strict routine at all hours of the day, regardless of the weather or situation. Good days, bad days, hot days, snowy days, before crowds, on silent nights, in a pleasant breeze, or mid-hurricane — no matter the environment, these sentinels must perform.

Their level of dedication has not gone unnoticed by the American public. While the sentinels have rightly earned every bit of admiration, such widespread recognition doesn't come without a handful of misconceptions.


1. Guards get the Tomb Guard Identification Badge immediately

There is a difference between being a soldier who guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and being a sentinel. Soldiers in training may guard the tomb and perform their duties just as a sentinel, but only a sentinel may wear the badge.

To become a sentinel, you must go through rigorous training and an incredibly difficult series of tests. These sentinels are only allowed two minor uniform infractions — anything major and you're out. They must memorize a 17-page pamphlet and rewrite it with proper punctuation and make fewer than 10 mistakes. They must then perform on the mat, facing a 200-point inspection — only two minor infractions are permitted.

Usually, the "newmen" get night shifts when minor missteps aren't noticed by a crowd.

(Elizabeth Fraser)

2. Sentinels have reached perfection

Every step must be precise. Every turn must be precise. They must maintain a precise measure of time throughout. Everything they do must be as close to perfection as possible. If you think they've set the bar impossibly high, then you're right.

The extreme standards required of the sentinels are put in place to prevent them from getting complacent. The expectations on these troops are so high that they can never be reached. This way, the guards and sentinels never feel like they've mastered their trade and they must always strive to improve — even if they're at 99.99% perfection.

Even the sergeant of the guard is tested before stepping on the mat.

(Elizabeth Fraser)

3. Sentinels can wear their badge forever

Once you've graduated from Airborne School, you can keep your wings forever. Once you've graduated Ranger School, you can wear your tab forever. Unlike many badges and identifiers in the Army, sentinels can have their badge revoked for improper personal conduct.

Even if a former sentinel has long since retired, if they commit a felony, receive a DUI, or are convicted of any other major crime, their name is stricken from the record and they lose their badge.

Those other major incidents, however, are not for the following two reasons.

(Photo by Pfc. Gabriel Silva)

4. Sentinels are never allowed to drink

Some time ago, a spam email made the rounds that was filled with a lot of truth but also some nonsense about the sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In that forwarded email, it stated that the sentinels must never have a drop of alcohol for the rest of their life. This rumor holds about as much weight as the Nigerian Prince asking for your mother's maiden name.

As long as they are not a guard going through training (they don't have time to drink anyway) and they are of age, they are free to enjoy alcohol — as long as they are off-duty and they have a designated driver or taxi ready.

Even when they've become sentinels, they still don't have time to drink. Maybe when they retire.

(Photo by Pfc. Gabriel Silva)

5. Sentinels are not allowed to curse

This one's similar to the "no alcohol" rumor. We're sorry to dispel the illusion, but sentinels are absolutely allowed to use profanity in their everyday speech if they're off-duty.

That being said, sentinels are not permitted to curse while on the mat. Then again, they can't really do anything other than guard the tomb while they're on the mat.

A third "can't for life" myth from that email is watching TV. But I think you get the point...

(Walter Reeves)

6. Sentinels live under the tomb

The silliest of all rumors states that the guards and sentinels live underneath the tomb so they can always remain on call. The truth is that they live in a regular barracks at Fort Myer, which is right next to Arlington, or off-post with their families.

There are living quarters under the steps of the amphitheater, but those are mostly used as a staging area for inbound and outbound guards/sentinels to prepare their uniforms.

They're still your highly-trained, highly-precise soldier who can probably eyeball 1/64th of an inch.

(Elizabeth Fraser)