There is quite a bit of information and several situations that every color team needs to know to maintain the American flag in the position of honor – on the marching right or in front. The American flag never marches any other position. Never. Military and para-military (just about every organization that has its members in uniform) should follow military guidance.
Never march the American flag in the center. The position of honor is to the right- not the center. All flags are marched so that the finial (top ornament, the spade) is as close to the same height as possible. All flagstaffs must also be the same length.
Color Guard Formations
There are only two authorized formations for a color guard. Only two, Line Formation and Column Formation. Everyone who has served even a day in the military is familiar with both. We fall-in for a formation in line formation and when we are going to march somewhere, the formation is given Right Face into column formation and we can then march any necessary distance.
Notice in the graphic above that Inverted Line and Column Formations takes the American flag out of the position of honor. A color guard can never perform these two formations. Never.
What Flags do we Carry and in what Order?
Military, Civil and Citizen teams have different requirements. The colors listed are in order from the marching right (viewer’s left):
- Military teams (the US military, ROTC, and JROTC, and other cadet organizations) carry the American, (state,) and service colors. The organizational color would be last.
- All services must always march with their service color, it may not be replaced by any other flag.
- The Army is authorized to add a state, territory or foreign national color (only one) and can carry up to four flags, the rest being unit colors. Read here for more information.
- The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard are only authorized to carry the National Ensign and the service color. They may add another three-man color guard for a foreign national or US territory color only. Read here for more information.
- The Air Force and Space Force are authorized to add a state, territory or foreign national color (only one) and can carry up to four flags, the rest being unit colors. Read here for more information.
- Civil teams (law enforcement, firefighters, and EMS) carry the American, state, municipal, organizational and even fraternal colors. The fraternal color can be omitted when presenting for local government functions.
- Citizen teams (Scouts, fraternal organizations) carry the American, state, and organizational colors.
- Tribal teams , on Tribal lands, would carry the Tribal Nation’s color, American, and state colors. Outside of Tribal lands, the American would be first and then the Tribal Nation’s color. Some Tribal teams also carry service colors.
Side note: When an Army, Air Force, or Space Force color team carries the following colors, this is the order. No exceptions.
- American flag
- Foreign national, state, or territory flag (in that order)
- Military departmental flag
- (Unit flag)
Please read The Why of the Military Color Guard series of posts.
Carrying More Than One National Flag?
Let’s say you are part of an Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Corps and Honor Guard (a first responder fraternity). Many of these teams carry not only the American flag, but also the Irish flag. Why? The first law enforcement officers and firefighters were Irish. The tradition continues. Back to our situation of two national flags: All national flags are treated the same on American soil – they are not dipped in salute. Both remain upright even during both national anthems, if they are played. All other colors dip in salute.
Joint Service Order for Military Colors
This is the only order for service flags, service emblems, etc. For more information on why this is the order, click here to read Joint Service Order of the Colors. The right/lead rifle guard is a Soldier and the left/rear guard is a Marine.
- Right rifle guard, Army
- Marine Corps
- Air Force
- Space Force
- Coast Guard
- Left rifle guard, Marine Corps
Note: While service color position remains the same, if all service personnel are not able to be present for the team, their order should go as follows as far as knowledge is concerned: regardless of service or rank, the most knowledgeable (as far as color guard experience) member should be the US color bearer and the second most knowledgeable should be the right rifle guard. Third in this sequence should be the left rifle guard with descending familiarity following from there.
Joint Service Order for First Responders
Full disclosure: I developed this. While this is not a hard-and-fast rule, I thought it necessary to create an order of precedence based on the implementation of each service. Read this for complete first responder joint service information:
- Law enforcement officer (LEO)
Using the guidance from the military, team make up might look like this:
- Right/lead rifle guard: LEO armed with a rifle/shotgun, second-most experienced member
- American flag: LEO, most experienced member
- Other flag (State, etc.): Firefighter/EMS, can be least in experience
- Left/rear guard: Firefighter/EMS armed with a ceremonial fire axe, third in experience
Keep in mind the guidance that the most experienced member should be the US color bearer, regardless of service/profession.
LEO/Fire/EMS Working Together
I encourage and enjoy joint work, but there is an issue that must be addressed: Technique.
What about Military and Civil working together?
Nothing addresses this subject specifically. However, we don’t necessarily read manuals to see what is forbidden or not authorized as that would be a never ending list, we look to the service manuals for what is authorized and we have our answer already. Military sticks with military and that’s it.
What About the Uniform?
For the military, the Class A or ceremonial uniform is it. On base, the utility uniform is an option but only if the official party is wearing it. Never wear mess dress. For more read this article.
Does Height Matter?
Experience before aesthetics, always. Not if you have the luxury of each member of the team being around the same height, but for cadet and civil teams, it should come second to knowledge and experience. Yes, the team might look “off”, but it’s best to have knowledgeable members of the team in key positions rather than have aesthetics. Click here and read this article.
Flag Stuck, etc.?
Problem during the Performance? That’s why God invented the right and left guards for the team! The guards are there to fix whatever issue they can. For more, read this article here.
Waiting for the ceremony still requires proper protocol.
- Arrive at the site at least one hour early
- Practice while in your travel uniform (this ensures no one thinks the ceremony has already begun and gives the team time to figure out their movements)
- Change into ceremonial/Class A uniform
- Hang out* with equipment ready in-hand and all team members in their proper place (American flag at right or in front of other flags- yes, even just hanging around – cameras are everywhere)
- Ten minutes prior to show time, line up at staging position at Stand at Ease (or Parade Rest) ready to perform
*An example of how NOT to stand around. This is a USAF Base Honor Guard team, I have pictures of other services, this is just an example.
For horse and ice rink arenas, see The Arena/Rink Colors Presentation article.
Left Wheel, Right Wheel and About Wheel. These are terms that honor guards use to describe turns accomplished by the color team most often outside. Right/Left Wheels use the center of the team as the rotation point which means half the team marches forward and the other half marches backward to rotate the team 90-degrees in an average of eight steps for teams with four to six members.
This is joint service technique from the Marine Corps and ceremonial technique. The Army Wheel is just like the Marine Corps Turn with the rotation point on the guard position.
The team executes the About Wheel in the same direction as the Right Wheel rotating the team 180-degrees in 16 steps.
While colors can be and sometimes are posted outdoors (read that link), my experience leads me to recommend that you present and not post. The wind just never plays well with other others. We, in the military try to avoid this as much as possible with the alternative being a color team that posts near the podium for the event. The members present and then stage the team for everyone to see. Sometimes this may not be a viable solution and you will have to have the event and location dictate how the color team handles the colors. See also, How to Present the Colors at an Event, What is Authorized when Presenting the Colors, and How to Plan and Coordinate a Color Guard Event. This article, How to Present the Colors at an Event, has great information.
Note: As a rule of thumb, colors enter at Right Shoulder (Carry) and depart at Port Arms. Entering at Port is fine if necessary.
- Halt in front of and facing audience
- Present Arms for (foreign national anthem and then) the Star Spangled Banner or Pledge of Allegiance (not both see the next paragraph)
- Port Arms
- (Color bearers move to post colors and rejoin guards)
“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the presentation (and posting) of the colors.” Every time a color guard presents the colors, it’s called a presentation. At a formal event, the colors may be placed in stands, that is posting. The colors will always be presented, just not always posted.
Music to Present to
Why Not Both the Anthem and Pledge?
Having both is not necessary. The Star-Spangled Banner is a salute to the flag and we render the military hand salute, stand at attention, or place our right hand over our heart, and dip flags.
We will not find anything that specifically forbids having the Star Spangled Banner played or sung and then having the Pledge of Allegiance in the same ceremony. The military oath supersedes the Pledge from our first day of Active Duty so we in the military hardly ever recite the Pledge if at all. There are times we do recite it and that is explained in our protocol manuals. What we read in TC 3-21.5 (MCO 5060.20 and AFMAN 36-2203) and related manuals is that the only music to honor the flag is the national anthem.
If you are told that the anthem and Pledge will be part of a ceremony and have no say, a great way to facilitate that is to formally present the colors, go to Present for the anthem, (post the colors- for more formal ceremonies,) and then have the color guard depart. Once the team is off stage, the audience can be led through the Pledge.
If the point of contact insists on both the anthem and Pledge and the team remaining for both, have the team return to Carry/Right Shoulder and remain for the Pledge. After recitation, the team departs at Port (Port, ARMS; Colors, Colors Turn, HARCH).
Music Played on Entrance and Exit
A military march can be played for the color guard when entering and exiting and no other time. The usual music for military color guards is the Trio section of the National Emblem March. This YouTube video from the US Navy Band is perfect (also below) and at the correct tempo (around 90 beats per minute is best when presenting/posting indoors). If you have a live band, you can coordinate when to cut the music off. If you play this or another recording, you can halt and let the music play out. If you can get in place before the repeat, please don’t let the whole thing play while everyone stands around waiting for the music to end.
Dipping Flags to the Pledge
US military departmental and organizational flags do not dip for the Pledge. The same goes for the JROTC organizational flag, which is dipped in salute in all military ceremonies while the national anthem of the United States, “To the Colors,” or a foreign national anthem is played, when rendering honors to the Chief of Staff or Secretary of a US military branch, his or her direct representative, or an individual of higher grade, including a foreign dignitary of equivalent or higher grade. Organizational colors are also dipped when rendering honors to organizations and individuals for which the military ceremony is being conducted.
What about other organizational (veteran groups and first responders) and state flags? Dipping state, territory, city, and county flags along with private/national organization and law enforcement, fire, and EMS department flags is appropriate.
Foreign national anthems are played first and the Star-Spangled Banner is played last. An example of this is a Canadian hockey or baseball teams plays an American team here in the USA. If the American team traveled to Canada, the Star-Spangled Banner would be first with Oh Canada! played last.
While there may be other anthems representing certain people groups, they are not afforded the same protocol as a national anthem. The public is not required to stand or place their hand over their heart. Let’s take the Black Anthem as an example.
While I am in no way suggesting disrespect should be shown to a piece of music that may have meaning to a number of people, it is not at the same level as a national anthem and is not accorded the protocol of standing and placing the right hand over the heart, a military hand salute, or even the color guard going to Present Arms with the rifle guards at the position of Present and the non-national flag dipped forward. If this other music is played, the color guard should only stand at the position of Attention if on the court/field and after that music has finished, the commander of the team gives “Present, ARMS!” and the Star-Spangled Banner is then played or sung.
The announcer can say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Black Anthem.” After it is finished the announcer should say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise, (men remove your hats, and place your right hand over your heart) for the Star-Spangled Banner.” Here is where the color guard would go to Present Arms and the anthem would then begin. The Star-Spangled Banner must be last.
Standard Entrance and Departure
To Present or Post, that is the Question!
Posting the colors is for special occasions. How special? That is up to the organization. Graduations are a special time, that would call for posting the colors. Weekly events would probably warrant pre-posted colors at the least or presenting the colors only.
The Show-n-Go. This is the honor guard term for presenting the colors for an informal/semi-formal event. The colors are pre-posted on the stage/front of the room and the color team enters, formally presents (Anthem), and then departs. No posting.
This happens at all sporting events where a color guard enters the field and should be a regular occurrence for every color guard in the USA and Americans abroad. Formally presenting is reserved for formal events.
With the Show-n-Go, the colors do not matter. As long as the American flag pre-posted, the color team can present whatever they carry as their standard colors (American, State, etc.).
How to Enter
The standard entrance is to enter from the viewer’s right, present to the audience (then post) and depart. See the image above.
To enter from the viewer’s left, use Every Left On. Also, read this article. This avoids Inverted Line Formation explained above.
Flag Stand Positions
Below, is an example of different stand positions behind a podium. For more on which flags should be in which stands, read this article on The Logical Separation of Colors.
How to Exit
The standard exit is to the viewer’s left. See the standard entrance/departure image above.
To exit to the viewer’s right, use Every Left Off. The commander calls, “Step!” and the left rifle guard steps across, as close as possible to the team member on their left. Step any further away and the departure for the team looks terrible.
Asked to post another organization’s color(s)? Don’t! Read this!
Entering and Departing to Music
Music is not mandatory. If you are going to have music, it is best that it be live. If not, a recording can sound quite unprofessional. The standard entrance and exit music for presenting/posting the colors is the Trio section of the National Emblem march by Edwin Eugene Bagley. Here is the YouTube video of the USAF Heritage Band playing the march. The link begins the video at the Trio section. This tempo is about 120 SPM (steps per minute). For the colors, you want a tempo of about 90 SPM.
When to Retire/Retrieve the Colors
Retrieving the colors is reserved for the extra, extra formal occasions. Do not retire the colors for weekly or even monthly meetings. Retirement is for very formal galas or balls. Use the posting sequence in reverse.
- Halt in front of and facing audience
- Color bearers retrieve colors and rejoin guards
- Present Arms for a few seconds (military flags do not dip)
- Port Arms