The Why of the Military Color Guard – Precedence and Command

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There are times when you have read manual after manual, read them for multiple years, and a certain issue that you are trying to understand just doesn’t seem clear. A “forest for the trees” situation, if you will.

That has been my dilemma for a while: I know the precedence of the military, I know who is supposed to command in multi- or joint-service situations, and I understand what technique takes precedence in those situations, but how can I explain this and point to where it’s written?

Well, thank you to an Army NCO friend of mine who is currently an Army ROTC instructor. I truly appreciate my readers who are also focused on standards. Our community is small, but we have a large impact!


The precedence of the US military is found in DoD Directive 1005.8, Order of Precedence of US Armed Forces, 1977 (yes, it’s been current ever since, a new one will come out with Space Force in there one day).

This information is repeated in MCO 5060.20 and AFI 34-1201. However, the 2020 version of 34-1201 is wrong in precedence with the addition of the Space Force after the Coast Guard. The Coasties are part of the Department of Homeland Security and will therefore come last in order. When Congress officially* declares war (that has not happened in a very, very long time), the Coast Guard then moves to the Department of the Navy and thus service order then changes.

*The last time the United States Congress met its constitutional mandate to officially declare war by voting, for the record, to engage members of the US military in conflict was in 1942.

Multi vs. Joint Service

Our six military services in order (non-wartime): Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard.

Our six military services in order (officially declared wartime): Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Space Force.

Technically, Multi-Service is two to five services represented. Joint-Service is all six. Sometimes we say partial or full joint service.

Who commands?

The senior service officer or, in the case of the color guard, the senior service non-commissioned officer who is the national color bearer.

What techniques are used?

Regulation Drill. This is drill and ceremonies that comes out of TC 3-21.5, MCO 5060.20, and AFMAN 36-2203. The US military has three drill and ceremonies manuals. We used to have one drill standard that Baron von Steuben created for the Continental Army that the Marines used as well.

That served our nation well for many years until before, during, and after the Civil War era when certain officers (COLs William J. Hardee, 1820; and Silas Casey, 1862) began to experiment and come up with variations to von Steuben’s original writings. From there, we began to write separate drill and fighting techniques, including the Navy’s Landing Party Manual.

Ceremonial Drill. This is drill and ceremonies that comes out of manuals that are not used outside of a ceremonial setting. For example, only Air Force and Space Force Base Honor Guards are authorized to train using Air Force Honor Guard-developed Standards contained in AFMAN 34-515.

The same goes for US Army Active Duty, National Guard, and Reserve honor guards that follow the 3rd Infantry, Old Guard, standards. The Marine Corps uses MCO 5060.20 only while Marine Barracks Washington has it’s own Barracks Order that details their ceremonial standards. The Navy and Coast Guard are the same, following the MCO while the ceremonial teams in and around DC have their own written standards.

When the honor guards get together, the senior service standards apply, whether ceremonial or regulation. As an example here, when on the plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or full joint service ceremony anywhere else, US Army ceremonial standards are followed.

This is great to know, but where is it written that the senior service standards are used?

Here (bold emphasis mine):


E8.5.1. In public programs for which DoD support has been authorized and at which the display of the U.S. flag and the flags of the Military Services is applicable, a Joint Armed Forces Color Guard shall be employed, when available, using the following composition:

E8.5.1.1. Two Army bearers with the U.S. flag and Army flag.

E8.5.1.2. One each Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, [Space Force will go here -DM] and Coast Guard bearer with individual Military Service flags.

E8.5.1.3. One Army and one Marine Corps rifleman, as escorts.

E8.5.2. When a Joint Armed Forces Color Guard, as specified in paragraph E8.5.1., above, cannot be formed, the senior member of the senior Military Service in the color guard shall carry the U.S. flag. The DoD Components shall be guided by DoD Directive 1005.8 (reference (t)).

E8.5.3. U.S. military personnel may carry the official national flag of foreign nations participating in official civil ceremonies, defined as a “public event,” that are funded, sponsored, and conducted by the U.S. Federal Government or a State, county, or municipal government, when an official of the nation concerned is present in an official capacity to receive such honors, and the official is one for whom honors normally are rendered. In all other public programs or ceremonies, U.S. military personnel in uniform and in an official capacity are not authorized to carry flags of foreign nations, veterans groups, or other non-military organizations.

DODI 5410.19, Nov. 13, 2001

b. Color guards carrying the Navy and Marine Corps service colors will consist of five members, three Marines and two Navy members. The national color bearer and commander of the color guard will be a Marine.

c. A Joint Armed Forces Color Guard will consist of eight members; three Army, two Marine, one Navy, one Air Force, [Space Force will go here -DM] and one Coast Guard. The national color bearer and commander of a joint color guard will be a Soldier. The respective service colors are aligned to the left of the national colors as depicted in figure 7-4c. For color guards involving service academies, reserve or National Guard colors, refer to enclosure 2, chapter 3, for the proper precedence.

MCO 5060.20, May 15, 2019 In Joint Service Color Teams, the Army carries the United States Flag and commands the color team as the senior Service. The rifle guard nearest the United States Flag is Army and the rifle guard furthest from the United States Flag will be a Marine.

AFI 34-1201, August 18, 2020

Now that you have read all of that, I have a question for you. Why would the commander have to learn another standard? The answer is, they don’t. That would not make sense.

We have to know what the manuals say and what they don’t.

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