The Why of the Military Color Guard – JROTC and the State Flag

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I didn’t have the initial intention of expanding my Why of Color Guard series, but it is a natural progression. This article looks at the question of why a JROTC color guard carries the state flag, but needs to get out of the ubiquitous habit.

It is very common to see JROTC color guards carrying their state flag instead of the departmental or organizational flag. The reason behind teams carrying the state flag is that military flags have very specific requirements to be dipped, state flags don’t. I’ll share a quote from TC 3-21.5 regarding the standards for dipping in salute.

15-12. The organizational color salutes (dips) in all military ceremonies while the national anthem, “To the Color,” or a foreign national anthem is being played, and when rendering honors to the organizational commander or an individual of higher grade including foreign dignitaries of higher grade, but in no other case. The U.S. Army flag is considered to be an organizational Color and, as such, is also dipped while the national anthem, “To the Color,” or a foreign national anthem is being played, and when rendering honors to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, their direct representative, or an individual of equivalent or higher grade, but in no other case.

TC 3-21.5 15-3 03 May 2021

To elaborate on the above quote

A flag is called a color. The departmental color (US Army, Marine Corps, Navy, etc. flags) for each service is treated the same as what is written above. This means the departmental colors only dip for the Star-Spangled Banner, the bugle call To the Color, a foreign anthem, during the bugle call Taps, the service Chief of Staff, Commandant, or Secretary, their equivalent or those ranked higher, which includes foreign dignitaries.

Organizational flags are treated the same! I’ll explain. Below is the US Marine Corps Departmental flag. It’s also called the USMC Standard and USMC Battle Color. This flag is only dipped, just like the other departmental flags, only in the above circumstances. Just because the commander of the color guard gives the command, “Present, ARMS!” does not mean the departmental dips.

USMC Departmental

The following image is of a USMC Organizational Color. For the Marine Corps, all of the organizational flags look exactly like the departmental except for the wording on the scroll. The reason for this is that most Marine Corps color guards are restricted from carrying the departmental and must carry their own organizational.

Organizational flags have the same requirements as above for dipping in salute with an expanded requirement. The expansion is to the unit commander, everyone of equal rank/position, and those higher. So, let’s look at a JROTC, Sea Cadets, and Civil Air Patrol flag.

Cadet Unit Organizational Flags

Unit flags are organizational flags. Organizational flags dip in salute to the unit/organization commander and everyone above. In the case of the JROTC organizational, that flag dips to the commander of NJROTC (for the above pictured flag) and in every case required that is detailed above.

Replacement Ideology

For a JROTC color guard in competition the idea behind carrying the state flag in place of the departmental or even the JROTC organizational is to not break military flag protocol and that’s understandable. However, this idea has backfired so that just about every JROTC color guard believes that carrying the state flag as a substitute for the military flag is perfectly acceptable for every colors presentation. The idea has even spilled over into some Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve units.

Information should have been provided from the start to let instructors and cadets know that outside of the competition environment, the substitution cannot happen.

Having said this, the Army, Air Force, and Space Force can all add the state flag to the formation (in the second position). These service color guards can also add a foreign national, territory, county, and/or city flag. Since TC 3-21.5 has information for Colors Reverse for a team of six, we can then understand that up to four flags may be carried by these three services.

The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard are strictly limited to carrying ONLY the national ensign and the service departmental/organizational. Just those two flags with two rifle guards.

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