The US military has customs and courtesies. Wearing the service’s uniform is an example of a custom. Rendering a hand salute is a courtesy, albeit a required one.
The Six Armed Services
All Warrant and Commissioned Officers of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard receive a hand salute by all US military enlisted and all cadets at various times. Senior officers receive a hand salute by junior Warrant and/or Commissioned Officers. That is clear and backed up in each service drill and ceremonies manual in the description for the Hand Salute.
The Two Services with an Officer Corps
The others in uniform. Did you know that the US government has two other organizations with an officer corps in each? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Public Health Service (PHS) have a commissioned officer corps. When military personnel and officers if NOAA and PHS meet, salutes are initiated by whoever is junior in rank.
These officers do not carry a weapon, not even in a ceremonial aspect. These two officer corps should not form a color guard. Read more here.
The Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (Merchant Mariners, not “Merchant Marines”) fall under the same category as NOAA and PHS. They are commissioned officers. If you ever encounter a uniformed Merchant Mariner officer, a salute is warranted either way (whoever is senior).
These officers as well do not carry a weapon, not even in a ceremonial aspect.
The Officers Military Enlisted do not Salute
The Coast Guard Auxiliary is an all-volunteer all-officer organization. These officers are saluted by others within the program but are not commissioned officers and therefore not saluted by military personnel.
Senior (adult) members of the cadet programs Civil Air Patrol and US Naval Sea Cadet Corps are saluted by others within the program but are not commissioned officers and therefore not saluted by military personnel. Both CAP and USNSCC have very strict uniform wear policies.
Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary are also not saluted. Even though they wear rank, it equals a position; these members are not commissioned officers.
There’s nothing wrong with saluting members of these programs. You can render a hand salute, but it’s not mandatory since the officers in each program are volunteers and not commissioned.
Senior ROTC (college) cadets and midshipmen are not saluted. They render a salute to all US military commissioned officers: NOAA, PHS, Merchant Mariner, and internal program (senior) officers.
“When in Doubt, Salute”
USAF SSgt Jim Woods, a very good friend of mine many years ago (1990-1993) used to say this in so many conversations we had because it fit so well. Don’t be caught in a bad situation, saluting is not a bad thing, even if you salute someone who does not warrant one. Err on the side of positivity.
A Hand Salute Story
Tim McDonough and I went through USAF Basic Training (1985) at the same time, but different flights. We then went through the same Reprographics Technical School for our AFSC (AF version of the MOS) at Ft. Belvoir and were both sent to our first duty station, RAF Upper Heyford in the UK. One winter evening shortly after we arrived, a Lieutenant (or maybe Captain) walked by us in his blue uniform as we, in the old green fatigue uniform, were heading back to the dorms. We failed to salute because it was dark and we had no idea what uniform he was wearing, or that he was even an officer. Back then, Law Enforcement Airmen wore a big, puffy blue jacket. He asked if we didn’t salute officers, we exchanged salutes and went our way still not knowing who we saluted or what his uniform was. Eventually we saw other Law Enforcement Airmen on base in the same uniform and understood. When in doubt, salute.
Another Hand Salute Story
In 2012, I was invited to judge the Joint Service Drill Competition at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. I wore my DrillMaster Ceremonial Uniform because I was there as The DrillMaster and the event called for a formal uniform. I saluted the Captain I met from the Old Guard who briefed me on what was required and as I walked to gather my things, two Navy Chiefs saluted me as I approached them. I did not return the salute, that would not be appropriate, but I thanked them and gave them a brief explanation since I would be walking around the area. We all smiled and they told me that the reasoning behind the salute was my gold-colored chin strap at the front of my cap. That’s an indicator of an officer. Afterall, they are stationed in DC and NOAA, PHS, Merchant Mariner, and international military officers are out and about at various times. When in doubt, salute.
There are other cadet programs across the country where adults have created a rank structure within the program and have uniform wear that is very similar to or exactly like a branch of the US military. There are two independent programs that I have worked with:
- Marine Cadets of Iowa (MCI). Adults do not wear a uniform (hence, no rank), but cadets do. Run similar to a Sea Cadets unit. The concentration is solely on the cadets training in a realistic and very positive environment. They work with Marines in the local community.
- Extreme Military Challenge (XMC, AL). Adults do wear a uniform (their own from their service in most cases, along with their own rank. Some adults have program-specific rank on the Army uniform.) in a very realistic Army-based military environment. This is a summer program that offers as realistic as possible training opportunities for teens. All adults brought in are extensively vetted.
The Reverse is True
All cadets in JROTC, CAP, Sea Cadets, Young Marines, MCI, XMC, and all other independent organizations, are required to render a hand salute to all US military, NOAA, PHS, Merchant Mariner, and internal/external program officers. For example, JROTC or CAP/Sea Cadets cadets would salute adults in uniform from Sea Cadets/CAP. It’s about instilling a behavior/expectation. Would this be a regular situation? Probably not. It would be rare for programs to cross over (which is a really good idea for summer training opportunities, hint-hint). Remember, when in doubt, salute.
This also means all cadet program adults (Sea Cadets, CAP) render a hand salute to all US military, NOAA, PHS, Merchant Mariner, and internal/external program (senior) officers. As an example (thank you Mr. Dahlke), a CAP general officer would be required to salute a Second Lieutenant (which, visually, can appear somewhat awkward).
NOAA and PHS officers wear Navy (service dress) and Coast Guard (blue utility) uniforms (there is no need at all for wearing a sword or even forming a color guard). Notice that both programs don’t wear a combat-oriented utility uniform because they are not involved in combat.
I’m not a fan of the great similarities of cadet uniforms with the service’s uniforms and definitely dislike that cadets and adult program members wear combat-oriented utility uniforms. Not exactly the best choice. The blue utility uniform would be perfect for all cadet programs.
CAP and Sea Cadets wear their service dress uniform with a small variation here and there. These variations can be so slight, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. We need better differences.
Thanks to Professor Flag, DeVaughn Simper, for his input.
By the Way…
The image at the top of the page is the original USAF salute. We were never meant to practically throw the right hand over to the left side. We were always supposed to trace the center line with the fingertips. Todays hand salute is an insult to the USAF’s history.