Have you ever wished some magical handbook existed to help you navigate this crazy, yet wonderful, military life?
I sure have. Like most of you, I was indoctrinated into military life through baptism by fire. (Sound familiar?) I do remember receiving a copy of “Roses and Thorns” when I was a young Marine spouse (like age 19), but I had NO idea how to apply that content into real everyday modern military life….especially since its last update was in 1990!
Look, we’re all gonna flub up in our journey through military life and on occasion we’ll even have some pretty interesting stories to tell as a result. But when it comes to military protocol, I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I (and many others before us) made.
That’s why we came up with this quick cheat sheet to help you avoid some of the most common faux pas so far. Even if you’re a “seasoned spouse” (I HATE that term btw), we could always use a refresher on the do’s and don’ts of our role in military protocol and etiquette.
If you’ve ever lived on base, or find yourself there in the early mornings or in the early evenings, you may have heard bugle calls coming from the loudspeakers aboard the installation. These are called morning and evening “Colors” and is associated with the lowering and raising of the flags on post. When you hear this music playing, STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING. If you’re in your car, hit the brakes. If you’re walking the dog, stop and stand still. If you’re at the playground, stop talking and make sure the kids do as well (as best you can anyway). Most MilKids who live on base already know the drill and will probably be standing at attention themselves. It’s also customary to either face the nearest flag or at least stand and face the direction the music is coming from. The point is, if you’re anywhere outdoors and within earshot of these bugle calls, follow this protocol.
If you aren’t familiar with the sound of colors, check out this video of evening colors so you’ll be prepared to stop the next time you hear them.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen other military spouses have this knee-jerk reaction to salute when they’re around someone who is being saluted. I usually see this from newer officer spouses when going through the base gates in their vehicles. I’ve mostly witnessed this aboard Marine Corps bases, as officer and enlisted personnel have different decals on their vehicles. When the gate guard sees the officer decal, they automatically salute, regardless of who is driving the car. But the bottom line is, we DO NOT SALUTE BACK! (here’s what you can call them, too) It’s no big deal if you do, but just in case you didn’t know before….now you know. Speaking of saluting…
3. Left is Always Best
If you’re walking with your service member while in uniform, walk on his left side. Why? Because in the event a senior officer crosses your path, he’s gonna need to salute STAT. I’ve been accidentally wacked in the head few times because I forgot this bit of protocol. If you get confused (as I often did), just start singing some Beyoncé (“To the left, to the left…”)
Here’s the thing about attire…it is totally confusing sometimes! I learned the hard way that my version of “casual” and the military version of casual are two TOTALLY different things. Case in point, MY casual was (and still sometimes is) a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt. (See where this is going?) YEP. I was THAT chick. Bottom line: Don’t wear gym clothes unless you’re headed to the gym, don’t run into the c-store in a bathing suit after a trip to the pool (EVER), and ALWAYS keep a sweater/hoodie in your car. Why? Because not every installation commissary or exchange will enforce the same rules so it’s better to be safe than sorry. I (again) learned this the hard way two days after moving to Hawaii. I’d walked into the exchange in a halter top and was immediately stopped at the door. While my…ahem…’girls’ weren’t hanging out or anything, this particular installation didn’t make exceptions for anything and halters were on the list of unacceptable attire. Lesson Learned.
5. Military Ball
There’s a whole HOST of protocol associated with Military Ball season, from clothing to behavior. I’ll touch on two that I have seen more people flub up throughout history.
The first is the attire. Military balls are formal events, so for the male military spouses reading this, you’re pretty much off the hook on this one. Just put on a tux and call it a day.
For my fellow female military spouses, we want to wear floor length gowns…but the attire etiquette doesn’t end there. The world of fashion has evolved over the years and there are some pretty interesting (and sometimes tricky) dresses available out there that may not be appropriate for military balls. Here’s an example of what you DON’T want to wear to one of these shin-digs:
That’s right. No whale tale….no “Leave it to Cleavage.” Keep it tasteful and when in doubt, ask one of those “seasoned” (yes, I still hate that term) milspouses for their opinion.
The second thing I want to quickly touch on is alcohol consumption. 9 out of 10, there will be booze available at a military ball, but if you’re a light weight, I’d probably limit your intake until it’s time to hit the dance floor. You’ll be surrounded by your service member’s peers…the same peers they have to face the next day at work. The last thing you want them talking about is how so and so’s spouse can’t hold their liquor and barfed all over the commander’s shoes. When in doubt, save it for the after party.
Public displays of affection (or PDAs) are prohibited while in uniform….PERIOD. It’s no secret that most of us lose our minds when we see our service members all spiffed up in their duds…especially in their Service Dress uniforms. But we must overcome our need to grab them up into a never-ending lip-lock whenever we feel the urge. Try to contain yourselves…Even holding hands can be considered over-kill at times, but if they can’t even walk around with an umbrella in uniform, they surely can’t be wearing us all over their faces.
It took me over 10 years to understand each rank in the Marine Corps, and I’m still working on recognizing them in other service branches. They can absolutely be confusing. While I was learning as a young Marine spouse, my husband actually gave me a really great trick of the trade. He said if there’s a lot of ‘black’ on their chevrons or any ‘bling’ where the black on his uniform would be, always go with sir or ma’am. So I took part of that in stride and decided to call everyone I met sir or ma’am….until they told me to call them something else. It’s a rookie trick, but it worked while I was learning.
8. National Anthem
This has been a point of contention in American society as of late. But the question of whether to sit, kneel or stand is not an option in military protocol. You stand. You put your hand over your heart. You stop talking, smoking or chewing gum and face the flag. PERIOD.
9. THEIR Uniform
They earned it. They signed a blank check in the amount of up to and including their lives. They raised their right hands and swore an oath to protect the constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. That uniform is THEIRS. We should never be wearing their uniform in public, (even if we look awesome in it). Now we don’t see this with our male military spouses (though THAT would be a sight to see, wouldn’t it?). But we have seen photos on social media of other military spouses donning their service member’s uniform. This is an absolute NO NO. To some, this is considered borderline stolen valor. Now if it’s a special request directly from your service member? Save it for the boudoir and no one will be the wiser.
Our lives are hectic, but when we’re invited to a shin-dig at another Mil-Fams home, or for unit get-together at the behest of the commander’s spouse…we HAVE to RSVP. PLEASE don’t just show up if you have not RSVP’d. Hosting an event can be stressful…and there’s nothing more stressful than running out of food or not having enough room to host.
11. Say Thank You
Thank you cards are one of the few timeless courtesies that should never die out in modern society. If you attended an event hosted by a fellow milspouse, send them a thank you card. If you received a meal train after the birth of your last child, break out the thank you cards (you’ll be up all night anyway with baby, you’ll have time). This is NOT an outdated tradition. This is a stellar fixture in military life. If all else fails, go to the dollar tree and get a few packs to keep on hand. If you’re like me and you just KNOW you’ll forget to send it, go ahead and fill it out before the get-together and hand it to the host/hostess on the way out. If you forget everything else in this guide, DON’T forget to say THANK YOU.
There are WAY more topics that go along with military protocol and etiquette, but this mini-guide should help keep you in the clear for some of the most common offenses we commit throughout our military journey.
Have you ever “flubbed-up” one of these examples? We’d love to hear them if you’re willing to share!