First female Sergeant of the Guard for Tomb of the Unknown Soldier talks Be the One

Chelsea Porterfield recently retired from the U.S. Army where she served as a platoon sergeant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). Porterfield is the first female Sergeant of the Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown, and only the fifth female sentinel to ever serve at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Porterfield joined this week’s American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast to talk about the rigorous training to be part of the Old Guard, including the hardest part for her; the mission of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; how she encourages others to Be the One to save the life of a veteran from suicide after her own struggles; and what the future holds for her.

Podcast co-host Ashley Gorbulja asked Porterfield to break down the process to earn the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier badge because “I don’t think a lot of people understand the rigor of that process.” Porterfield said it starts with a 24-hour assessment “to test the ability to sustain a day in the life of a tomb guard.” It involves a physical test, uniform inspection and knowledge test that begins with three pages that must be memorized and recited and jumps to 17 pages – the hardest part for Porterfield – as you advance through. Those who do “it for fame or the badge are weeded out,” she said.  “I always tell people you have wants and you have needs and while you’re going through this you have to decide personally what you want and what you need to do to be successful here … There’s not going to be anyone here to tell you when to shine your shoes, when to make your uniform, when to do these things. You have to do it on your own. You have to want to do this.”

Through the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at, Porterfield said they are educating the public about the history of the unknown soldiers, Arlington National Cemetery, what it means to be a tomb guard and the testing process to earn the badge. “A lot of people think that it’s about being a tomb guard, but it isn’t. It’s about going out and becoming better and making other people better. Just be better the next day and improve and enhance your community. That’s part of the education mission.”

Co-host Jeff Daly spoke about The American Legion’s Be the One initiative to reach out to a veteran when they’re struggling and to lend a listening ear. He asked Porterfield if she would share words of encouragement from her own experience of suicidal thoughts and seeking treatment.

“I want people listening to know that it’s not going away the next day. And it’s not going away the day after that. Or two weeks from there. You may ask for help and you may trick yourself into thinking you’re OK the next day because you asked for help and you got a band aid and you talked to somebody. But suicide will always be in your narrative. Once it’s introduced into your mind at some point it’s always going to be there. It’s going to be a part of you.

“The important thing is that you have self-accountability. When I came out of inpatient there was no bigger embarrassment than having to go face my soldiers and my command. I thought I’m going to hear, ‘I told you so.’ I’m going to hear, ‘This is why.’ I’m going to feed a narrative that I have created in my own mind.”

But Porterfield didn’t hear those words.

“They were accepting, they were supportive and even if they weren’t I owed it to myself and I owed it to the people that I cared for, which were my soldiers, to have self-accountability.”

Porterfield went on to share what has kept her going and why others need to as well through personal accountability. After she finished, Daly said, “I’m glad we didn’t try to interject because that’s some amazing stand-alone audio. You probably have saved lives. Just with a perspective switch.”

Check out this week’s podcast to hear more Be the One insight from Porterfield and the memoir she is writing, along with more than 150 Tango Alpha Lima episodes available in both audio and video formats here. You can also download episodes on iTunes, Google Play or other major podcast-hosting sites. The video version is available at the Legion’s YouTube channel.