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The Stories Behind the Modern Military Salute

Navy photo

Photo courtesy of the Navy

When it comes to the hand salute, everyone seems to agree on two things: (1) it’s always a sign of camaraderie and (2) no one knows its exact origin.

But everyone has a theory.

Let’s start with the practical application. Raising the right hand to one’s cap or forehead is not only a gesture of respect, but also a signal that you’re not wielding a weapon (which was far more important information a few centuries ago than it is in today’s military settings). Some believe the salute is the evolution of a gesture dating back a few thousand years when assassins were more prevalent in both military and government circles.

There are other theories, too, dating back to medieval times. The most popular involves knights lifting their visors to identify themselves to superiors.

Whatever ancient customs are to be believed, it’s also reasonable to infer the modern salute is a replacement for removing one’s hat in the presence of a superior. According to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Center and School, a British order book from 1745 dictates “men are ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands and bow as they pass.” A page on the Quartermasters’ website explains military headgear had become so complicated and cumbersome by the time of the American Revolution, saluting was just an expedient change to protocol.

Department of Defense photo

Department of Defense photo

Today’s Salute

According to the Armed Forces History Museum, today’s standard salute – right hand touching the brim of the head cover with the palm down – was in place by 1820. The museum says the palm down portion of the salute may have been influenced by the salute style of the British Navy at the time. A sailor’s hands were often dirty, and exposing a dirty palm – especially to a superior – would have been deemed disrespectful. A correlating legend has it that Queen Victoria was once saluted with a dirty hand and declared thereafter that British sailors would salute with their hands at a 90-degree angle.

So who is always entitled to a salute?

  • The President of the United States
  • Commissioned and warrant officers
  • Medal of Honor recipients
  • Officers of allied foreign countries

What occasions should a service member give a salute?

Civilians have probably seen some of these instances in daily life (especially at a ceremony or a high-profile sporting event). But with rare exception, service members should render salutes in these circumstances:

  • During the playing of any national anthem
  • When the colors of the United States are presented
  • During official ceremonies
  • At a ceremonial reveal or retreat
  • During the raising or lowering of the American flag
  • During the Pledge of Allegiance
  • When reporting to a superior
  • When changing control of a formation

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When can service members skip a salute?

There’s protocol, and then there’s practicality. Salutes are not required when addressing a prisoner, when someone is in civilian clothing or when it would be tough or inappropriate to execute (for example, when someone is carrying equipment in both hands or at a crucial point of performing a complex task). Also, salutes are not usually required indoors, unless reporting to an officer while on guard duty, participating in an official ceremony or reporting to a commander or a military board. For a more nuanced look at salute rules, you can search out each individual service’s regulations on honors and salutes online (the Army’s can be found here).

Should civilians perform a hand salute when they see a service member?

Service members don’t expect salutes from civilians, even if those civilians are military employees or contractors. In fact, it could create an awkward moment unless the service member knows the civilian doing the saluting or recognizes the civilian to be a veteran. However, there aren’t any restrictions against saluting, either. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment protection for free speech and expression gives civilians the ability to do what they want when greeting anyone.

Our advice? Smile. Maybe say “hello.” And if you’re so inclined, shake their hand and thank them for their service.

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USO Follows Troops Back to Baghdad with New Location

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If the military is going back into Iraq, then so is the USO.

USO services hadn’t been requested in the region since the 2011 drawdown. But that changed over the July 4th weekend when — with the help of troops there — the USO stood up an unstaffed location in Baghdad.

The facility was set up in a matter of days and features Internet connectivity, food and beverages, video games and a plethora of creative games and holiday supplies from USO2GO kits to keep troops there entertained.

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Bruno Mars Plays USO Show for Military Families at the White House

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Grammy-winning recording artist Bruno Mars performed a USO show for hundreds of cheering troops, military family members and guests of the First Family on Saturday on the South Lawn of the White House.

The multi-platinum recording artist played a collection of hits as part of the USO’s seventh annual Salute to the Military USO concert. While storms cancelled the pre-show cookout festivities on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama came out and addressed the crowd from the stage before Mars’ hour-long USO performance that led into a fireworks show on the National Mall.

“It was an honor to perform at the Fourth of July concert at the White House,” Mars said in a release. “It was incredible to stand with the First Family and the USO to recognize the service and sacrifice of our troops and military families.”

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Photos: USO Center in Japan Rescues Kittens Hiding in its Floorboards

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It turns out troops aren’t the only ones who can get a helping hand at the USO.

A cat crawled through a small hole in the foundation of the USO building at U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo in Southwest Japan, this spring and gave birth to seven kittens.

In June, after a few weeks of hearing phantom meows, the USO Sasebo staff realized they had some feline squatters and called the base’s public works team. After cutting an additional hole in a wall, the kittens were eventually coaxed out one at a time until all seven newborns were freed. They were then passed to a foster family and have since all been placed in permanent homes.

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Wawa Hoagie Day Kicks Off $700,000 Fundraising Campaign for the USO

PHILADELPHIA—Wawa chose America’s birthplace on Independence Day weekend to launch its most ambitious campaign yet to support the USO.

Celebrity chef and USO tour veteran Robert Irvine joined Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens and hundreds of service members, police officers, fire fighters and first responders as well as dozens of USO volunteers and Wawa associates to construct a 5-ton hoagie on Thursday. The meal – which equated to 23,000 individual sandwiches – was served for free at Independence Mall during the 23rd Annual Wawa Hoagie Day.

“There’s nothing more fulfilling to me in my life than cooking for our warriors and their families and making sure that they know that we love them,” said Irvine, who recently returned from a USO tour to Japan. “The USO is a huge part of that.”

The event, which featured a USO Letters from Home station and hoagie-building competitions between service branches and police and fire departments, marked the start of Wawa’s annual USO fundraising campaign. The campaign runs through August 30 and aims to raise $700,000. Wawa customers can to donate $1, $3 or $5 when making purchases, which will go directly to support USO programs for troops and their families.

“For July fourth there’s no other place you should be than Philadelphia,” said Joe Brooks, President and CEO of Liberty USO. “It’s a wonderful community. A community that knows and understands the service and sacrifice of our military and it’s a community that steps up in many ways, both in donations of their time and money to the USO.”

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Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Actress Hilary Swank, center, and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes participate in a panel discussion following the premiere of Duracell’s new film “The Teddy Bear” on Thursday at The Times Center in New York. Courtesy photo

Actress Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson (Robert is an air traffic controller in the Navy), Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes on Thursday in New York to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new movie “The Teddy Bear.” The film — which you can watch below — is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

“One of the biggest eye-openers was watching my husband sail away,” Denise Nilson said. “I believe out of the seven-and-a-half-month deployment, we saw my husband’s face three times via Skype. And only one of them my girls were able to see.”

Denise Nilson was six weeks pregnant when Robert deployed, and they already had two young daughters — one of whom is autistic — and a pet. By the time he returned, the family pet had passed away, they’d gotten a new puppy and Denise was ready to deliver their son at any moment.

“I don’t look at it like our life has hardship. We’re a military family … this is just what we do.”

Duracell is donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

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