Fact check: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sentinels must observe rigorous protocols, but can still drink alcohol off duty, swear in public

Posts on social media make a list of claims about the strict protocols that must be obeyed by the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument for unidentified soldiers who died in combat, in Arlington National Cemetery. These posts contain a mixture or true and false information.

A member of the honor guard carries a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veteran's Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Examples of the posts can be seen here ; here .

The posts make the true claims that becoming an honorary guard involves undergoing a rigorous selection process, and that the protocols followed during the sentinels’ shifts are meticulously executed.

The posts, however, also claim that sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier must give up drinking alcohol for life, as well as swearing in public. And they claim that during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the tomb’s sentinels refused orders to abandon their posts despite the inclement weather. These claims are false.

According to the Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier “exemplifies valor and honor by remembering those who died committing brave and selfless acts with no one to bear witness to them.” ( here ).


The training and selection processes for the tomb sentinels have strict guidelines. According to the website of the Society of the Honor Guard, the training cycle alone consists of five exhaustive tests over 6 to 12 months. These focus on changing of the guard, uniform preparation, weapons and historical knowledge, among other elements ( here ). Once picked for duty, the sentinels are subjected to rigorous daily inspections, to make sure their living quarters are tidy and their uniforms “immaculate”.

It is true that the sentinels’ gloves are wet to improve the grip on the rifle. Although they do not execute an “about face” (180-degree turn) as the post indicates, it is also true that the sentinels always carry the rifle on the outside shoulder ( ).

Although the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with no exception, there is some dispute over how long this has been the case. The National Arlington Cemetery states that this practice has been in effect since April 6, 1948, while the Society of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier maintains that the 24-hour watch was implemented on July 1, 1937.

What is true, however, is that the changing of the tomb sentinel is executed every 30 minutes with clock-like precision:

“[The] Tomb Sentinel marches 21 steps across a black mat passing the grave markers of each of the unknowns. He then turns 90-degrees and faces east for exactly 21 seconds. Afterward, he then turns north for another 21 seconds which is followed by a crisp shoulder arms movement where the guard places his rifle on the shoulder nearest to the spectators to symbolize that he stands between the tomb and any outside threat. The guard then paces 21 steps to the north, turns, and repeats the entire process until he is relieved.” ( here ).

The number 21, as the posts correctly state, alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary. ( ).


According to the Society of the Honor Guard, it is a false rumor that the Sentinel must commit “for two years to guard the Tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and [not] drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives” ( ).

The Society also confirms that it is also a false rumor that the Sentinel cannot swear in public “for the rest of their lives.”

A popular military news blog, We Are the Mighty, debunked the rumor that the sentinels are not allowed to watch television ( here ).

It is true that tomb sentinels are expected to observe their posts in spite of inclement weather. Line 8 of the Sentinel’s Creed refers to persevering through the “discomfort of the elements” ( here ). But the Society’s website clarifies that the “accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the Soldier” is never put at risk:

“It was erroneously reported that during Hurricane Isabel, the Sentinels were ordered to abandon their posts for shelter and that they refused. No such order was ever given. All proper precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the Sentinels while accomplishing their mission. Risk assessments are constantly conducted by the Chain of Command during changing conditions to ensure that soldier welfare is maintained during mission accomplishment.”


Partly false. Social media posts listing the rules sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in National Arlington Cemetery must observe include a mixture of true and false claims.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media here