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.

23 Facts for the Army’s 240th Birthday

Department of Defense photo

Department of Defense photo

1. First, the basics: The United States Army as we know it today was founded June 14, 1775, when the First Continental Congress OK’d the enlistment of soldiers to serve the united American colonies.

2. Nearly 70 percent of all Medals of Honor have been awarded to soldiers. And 1,198 of the Army’s 2,403 Medals of Honor were awarded for actions in the Civil War.

3. Hungry, soldier? Well, the Army is looking into 3D printing food.

4. The USO has been helping soldiers since its inception. Here’s one Tuskegee Airman’s story of how a USO tour director helped him in the face of racism.

5. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey is the ninth Army general to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s more than double any other branch. Dempsey is retiring in 2015.

6. Francis Marion – known as “The Swamp Fox” – headed a group of Revolutionary War-era Army Rangers known as Marion’s Partisans. He is also credited with creating modern guerrilla warfare, which was key to the American victory against the British.

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7. More than half of the men elected President of the United States – 24 to be exact – have worn the Army’s uniform.

8. Pvt. James Buchanan was the only president who served in the Army who didn’t become an officer.

8. June 14 is also Flag Day. Officially adopted in 1916, the first iteration of the American flag was actually authorized by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777.

9. The Army is marginally responsible for inventing the microwave. A World War II engineer at Raytheon realized radiation from radar – which the Army was using to scan for enemy missiles – could be used to heat products, too.

10. Galusha Pennypacker is widely recognized as the youngest general in Army history, earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general at the age of 20 during the Civil War.

11. The Army was the last branch to adopt an official song, declaring “The Army Goes Rolling Along” as its official tune in 1956. (You can download it here.)

12. The USO helps out modern soldiers in a host of ways beyond snacks and a place to snooze. Here’s the story of Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger, who needed help fast to get to his father’s funeral.

An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2004. U.S. Army photo

An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2004. U.S. Army photo

13. The Army likes to name its helicopters in honor of Native American tribes. Here’s why.

14. The Air Force was part of the Army until 1947.

15. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold is the only person to be promoted to the rank of five-star general in two different branches — the Army and the Air Force.

16. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was actually an Army campaign to map and discover the geographic secrets of the continent.

17. Robert E. Lee famously graduated from West Point in 1829 with zero demerits. He’s often given credit for being the only person to pull off the feat. But according to at least one researched column in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Lee actually graduated second in his class behind a man named Charles Mason, who also equaled Lee’s zero demerits feat.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

18. For the sake of comparison, Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated with 307 demerits, according to the same story. (He turned out alright, though.)

19. Eisenhower was the last general from any branch to be elected president.

20. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s true: the Army tested the spread of biological agents on unknowing Americans from the 1940s through the 1960s, inadvertently killing at least one civilian by dispersing what was previously thought to be a harmless bacteria.

21. Bob Neyland graduated West Point in 1916 and is still the baseball team’s all-time leader in pitching victories (35). Neyland was also a boxer and — perhaps most famously — went on to coach the University of Tennessee’s football team. The school’s football stadium is named after him.

22. Speaking of football, Army was once a national power. They won a piece of three straight national championships between 1944 and 1946.

23. The Old Guard still keeps watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Celebrate the U.S. Army’s 240th birthday with us by signing their birthday card.

A Lifetime of Service: Officer-Turned-Businessman Talks About Supporting USO

When retired Army officer Tom Kilgore decided it was time to give back, it was clear which organization he would support.

“I became active with the USO shortly after my retirement [from the Army],” said Kilgore, who now heads risk management for ArcLight Capital Partners in Boston. “It was one of the organizations while I was on active duty which provided great value, I thought, to my soldiers and to my family.”

At West Point, Kilgore was taught that graduates engage in a lifetime of service.

“One of the ways in which you can continue a lifetime of service is to continue to give back to the organizations [that] have taken care of us while we were on active duty,” Kilgore said. “The USO affords me an opportunity to live up to the goals that were set for me as a young man, and the goals that I embrace and continue to hopefully embrace and live to this day.”

Helicopter Rides, Crazy Food Pairings and Troops: Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. Talk About Their USO Travels

Comedians and USO tour veterans Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. have dozens of great stories about traveling the world to entertain troops on USO tours.

At the beginning of May, the duo was part of the USO’s first entertainment tour to Iraq since 2011.

In this video, Byrne and Wood discuss the allure of riding in military helicopters, the wild world of DFACs (dining facilities) and why they keep going overseas to perform shows.

Former Airman Found His Way Home Thanks to Chance Meetings at USO Centers

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith has started some of his most memorable travel adventures at airport USO centers.

But they weren’t planned that way.

On one trip, Smith was traveling home to Ohio to attend a friend’s funeral. A delay forced him to miss his connecting flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. After trying to reschedule for the following day, he realized he might not make it home in time for the service. He went to the airport’s USO center to clear his head. While relaxing at the center, Smith started chatting with a Marine who he recognized from his first flight.

“I talked to him and found out that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral on the same day, but one town over,” Smith said. “We figured out that if we took turns sleeping and driving, we could make it to Ohio by morning.

“We went from being complete strangers, to renting a car together and driving seven hours and 400 miles across the country.”

And it wasn’t the last time this happened. On another trip home, this time to see his family for the holidays, Smith found himself sitting in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport USO facing a similar situation.

Due to a series of flight delays, Smith and two soldiers he met at the USO were stuck at the Florida airport and were told they should anticipate missing their connecting flights home from Atlanta the next morning. Instead of spending their holiday time at the airport, the trio decided to rent a car and drive to Atlanta so they could catch their connecting flights.

“We all made our flights and got to see our families for Christmas instead of just New Year’s,” Smith said.

Another USO visit also led Smith to talk with a major who helped spark his involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Smith has been mentoring his Little Brother for over a year now.

“I’m very grateful that the events turned out the way they did, because I probably wouldn’t have met him any other way,” Smith said.

“Some of my best memories from nine years in the Air Force were in airport USO facilities,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post.

USO and TAPS Come Through for Army Family After Son’s Suicide

Corey Smith was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who committed suicide in 2012

Corey Smith, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, committed suicide Dec. 29, 2012. Courtesy of the Smith family

Like every Saturday morning, Kathy Smith expected a phone call from her Army veteran son.

But on this Saturday, it was a call from someone else.

“Corey Jon Smith, what did you do? Oh my God kid! What did you do?” she recalls shouting aloud from her bathroom before gathering the family at her oldest son Travis’ house to share the tragic news.

Their beloved Corey, her youngest child who had struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after serving in Iraq and who was close to graduating with a psychology degree with the intention of helping others going through similar problems, had committed suicide at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You know what, God,” she recalled saying, “I absolutely do not agree with this plan. I don’t like this plan and I don’t agree with it.

“But I believe in you and I trust you, and I’m trusting that you’re going to take care of us now, because we have to get to Anchorage.”

Corey Smith on deployment in Iraq, 2006. Courtesy photo

Corey Smith during a 2006 Iraq deployment.

Kathy said the family had recently spent the last of its savings on her nursing school tuition and were trying to figure out how to get gas and food for the week. There were no funds to get to Anchorage.

“When TAPS stepped into the picture with the USO, they covered all of those areas,” she said. “When I told you they were the answer to a prayer, I wasn’t kidding. They answered our prayers to a ‘T.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of the people at TAPS and the USO.”

On Dec. 29, 2012, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) received a call from a friend who lived near the Smith family in Big Lake, Minnesota, explaining the Smiths’ need to get to Anchorage quickly to comfort their 26-year-old now-widowed daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter.

TAPS moved quickly to make that happen. The only available flight plan included an overnight layover in Seattle, which meant asking the USO to act as a concierge for the family. Within days, the Smiths were on their way to Alaska, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just as the ball was dropping to start 2013 in New York City.

“We were so exhausted,” Tim Smith said. “In a situation like that, you wouldn’t know what you want if you wanted it, your brain is so scrambled and confused — kind of just hanging in limbo.”

USO SeaTac Director Bill Baker greeted them and guided them to the USO, where they stayed until their 6 a.m. flight.

“It was a heartbreaking week to say the least,” Baker said. “My volunteers did an amazing job taking care of them and made them feel so comfortable and welcome when they asked if they could stay in the USO instead of a hotel so they could be closer to military troops.”

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With an early flight and Kathy nursing a broken foot from dropping her laptop bag on it that day, they decided staying at the USO was the most convenient decision.

“I remember we went to bed at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. but the gentleman on duty at the USO said he had an alarm set for us, and that he and another woman would be up all night to look over us” Kathy Smith said. “I know for a fact that they were because I saw them come in and check on us. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched her pull the covers up over my daughter.”

The Smiths made it to Anchorage for the funeral proceedings and back to their home outside Minneapolis without further incident, all the while being watched over by TAPS and USO volunteers.

“Throughout the whole time we would get calls from TAPS asking us if we needed anything or if we forgot anything,” Kathy Smith said. “They called to make sure we got to the USO safely and we got calls shortly after we arrived. Every step of the way they made sure that we weren’t stranded anywhere at any point in time.

“In that moment and in so many others, USO volunteers made a grieving family feel more comfortable and gave them such care during a very difficult time,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS. “It’s the perfect example of why and how our organizations rely on each other to care for military families during their most difficult moments.”

His sister Autum set up a peer support foundation called Coreysadventuresfoundation.org, to memorialize Corey by connecting veterans with each other and by connecting the families dealing with the aftermath of PTSD-related suicides. Corey believed in “Faith, Family, Friends, and Freedom,” but at his heart he was an adventure-seeker who believed in the brotherhood of one soldier to another. The Smiths believe the key is to facilitate outdoor adventures and activities where veterans and families can meet and connect.

“I miss him very much,” Kathy Smith said. “But there are still Saturdays when I wake up thinking Corey’s going to call today.”