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

House1

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.

USO Follows Troops Back to Baghdad with New Location

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

House1

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.”

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.

House1

Daddy’s Home! USO Helps with Surprise Father’s Day Weekend Homecoming for Seabee

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spencer Bouchard came to the USO to record a video. He left with a rapidly forming plan.

Bouchard, a construction electrician petty officer third class in the Navy Seabees, stopped by USO Yokosuka earlier this spring to record a USO/United Through Reading Military Program video for his infant son, Noah. While there, he spoke with the USO staff about surprising his family back in the states. He had a special date in mind: June 20. Not only was it the Saturday before Father’s Day, but it was also Noah’s first birthday party. The USO staff at Yokosuka helped set him up to record the video, which he ended by asking his wife, Courtney, to turn around, knowing he’d be behind her to greet her.

Bouchard’s parents were in on the surprise and helped facilitate the plan while keeping it secret from his wife, Courtney, for three months.

“It was quite the process,” Bouchard said. “I had to be cautious [about what I said] when I Skyped Courtney.”

The Seabee flew from Japan to San Francisco and finally to Cleveland on June 20, where he was greeted by a trio of USO of Northern Ohio volunteers and his parents around 6 a.m. Bouchard’s mom and dad snuck him into their home — which is across the street from Courtney’s parents’ house, where she and Noah are living during the deployment.

By the time Bouchard woke up, Noah’s Mickey Mouse-themed party was already coming to life, with about 40 guests and a few photographers trickling in. Around 1:30 p.m., Bouchard’s mother, Tamara, asked everyone to face the garage where Courtney and Noah were going to watch a special greeting from her son. Bouchard’s father, Paul, was on the phone with him when the DVD started playing and gave him his cue to walk over.

Just as the video was wrapping up, he walked in.

Happiness ensued.

“[She was] shocked and incredibly happy,” Bouchard said. “She was just crying. All the stress she had from [coordinating] Noah’s birthday party and all the stress she had from me being away kind of just disappeared in that one second she saw me.”

Bruno Mars to Headline USO Fourth of July Concert at the White House

Bruno Mars will play a USO show at the White House on July 4. Courtesy photo

Bruno Mars will play a USO show at the White House on July 4. Courtesy photo

Bruno Mars will bring his “Uptown Funk” to downtown Washington on July 4. But you’ll need a special invitation to get into the exclusive party at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mars announced this afternoon that he’ll be playing an exclusive USO show for military families at The White House this July 4. The announcement took place during a Twitter exchange with First Lady Michelle Obama.

This is the seventh consecutive year the White House has partnered with the USO and hosted its “Salute to the Military” concert. Last year’s event featured Pitbull, while acts like fun., Cedric The Entertainer, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, Brad Paisley, Train, Amos Lee, Jimmy Fallon, the Foo Fighters and Michelle Branch have also played the South Lawn on Independence Day.

“The USO is thrilled to once again be partnering with the White House and hosting a USO concert featuring superstar Bruno Mars this Independence Day,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch said in a release. “There is no better time or place to celebrate the birth of our nation than on the Fourth in our nation’s capital, surrounded by hundreds of America’s troops and military families. And with Bruno’s help, it is sure to be the ultimate ‘thank you’ to those who serve our nation and sacrifice their lives daily.”

Mars has won multiple Grammys and played the NFL’s Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2014. He was Billboard’s 2013 Artist of the Year.