Spouse 101

Customs and Traditions of the Military

With so many customs and traditions associated with your spouses’ career, it can feel difficult to keep track of everything.  Have no fear! We’ve broken down some of the most common from Reville to Protocol and discussed in detail.

Reveille and Retreat

Reveille and Retreat signal the beginning and end of the day on military installations. 

Reveille usually occurs at 8:00 in the morning, or 0800 (pronounced “zero-eight-hundred”). At the installation headquarters, the ceremony consists of raising the national flag. A short, rousing tune–called “Reveille”–is played, and is also played on loudspeakers all over the base. Retreat is a similar ceremony, although the flag is lowered and folded and the tune “Taps” is played, again over loudspeakers. The time of Retreat varies by service and installation, and may occur at 4:30 PM (1630, “sixteen-thirty”), 5:00 PM (1700, “seventeen-hundred”), or at sunset.

When they hear the music, service members will stop what they are doing, face the headquarters, and salute. They may alternatively stand at attention (if they are not in uniform and wearing a cover) or at “Parade Rest.” Civilians on base are expected to stop and stand respectfully still. Vehicles are required to stop driving. 

If you are on base around these times, and if you hear the music, see service members stop in this manner, or notice cars are stopping for no apparent reason, then stand still (if on foot) or come to a controlled stop in your vehicle.

DID YOU KNOW? If you are carrying something heavy or you are managing children, then you may of course set your load down or tend to your family.

Chain of Command

The military is a hierarchical organization, and your service member has a specific role depending on his/her rank or job assignment. His/her leadership is organized into a chain of command–a leader responsible for him/her individually, who is in turn responsible to a higher leader, and so on up to the President of the United States. A service member will generally be directly supervised by a non-commissioned officer (NCO) or staff non-commissioned officer (SNCO), and there will be an officer in charge over all (unless your spouse is an officer, in which case he/she will be responsible directly to a superior officer). 

The highest officer in a unit is typically called the CO (for Commanding Officer), and is generally a Lieutenant Colonel, Commander, Colonel, or Captain (the last is a Navy and Coast Guard rank equivalent to Colonel, not the junior officer rank of Captain in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps)–this person practically has final authority over a service member. Generally the CO is assisted by the Executive Officer (XO), who is his/her second-in-command, and the Sergeant Major, First Sergeant, or Chief who is the highest-ranking enlisted member in the command.

Leaders in the military are given great authority over their subordinates. They set training schedules, assign job responsibilities, evaluate their subordinates, and ultimately employ them in combat, from the CO all the way down to the enlisted corporal. As they are primarily concerned with the competence of their unit, many of their decisions regarding your service member may strike you as unfair, or at least as expecting too much–too much time, too much danger, or too much stress. It’s important to remember that the overnight training and duty, the rigid standards, and the unforgiving responsibility service members owe their units are required for adequate combat/deployment training, and are part of the unconditional service sworn to the United States by each service member. In recognition of these important relationships, your service member is required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the legal code applicable to service members, to extend courtesies to the chain of command. Senior officers are referred to as “sir” or “ma’am,” and are saluted when the service member is in uniform and wearing a cover (uniform hat). Senior enlisted members are referred to by their rank. Lawful orders from the chain of command may not be disobeyed under penalty of law.

You will likely hear much about your service member’s Chain of Command, as they literally control his/her life. You will also get to meet them at social events, if you attend. Bear in mind that you and your service member may have frustrations with them as much as anyone would about their boss, but in the end you both are relying on the chain of command to train your service member well and employ your unit in the defense of the United States.

Etiquette and Invitations

As an institution with great history and traditions, there is a certain old-fashioned courtesy the military expects regarding official events. Command events like balls, formal dinners, and changes of command usually have a script and established procedures, which may include military bands, pageantry like gun salutes and flyovers, and dining etiquette. Here are some tips on how to navigate these events.

RSVP: The phrase means Respondez, sil vous plait, french for “Respond, please,” and requires that you let the inviter know if you will attend or not, and how many guests you are bringing. This is important so that the event planner has enough seats and food for everybody. Usually a phone number, email address, or stamped card is provided as a means to a response.

Attire: Wear the proper attire. It will be specified on the invitation, and will match the uniform required of your service member, if he/she is attending. Official events can range from a change of command, where business casual or casual party attire is specified, to formal balls, where evening gowns are expected.

Conduct: Remember that the attendees of an official event are the colleagues and superior officers of your service member. Often such events are fun, but despite dancing and drinks people tend to remember those who make the worst spectacle of themselves.  Exercise common sense judgment, but have a good time!

Optional Events: Official events may be required for the service member, but they are optional for the spouse. You are encouraged to attend all the same, but there is no need to host your own parties or rearrange your schedule to attend if you have work-related or family arrangements. 

Procedures for Official Functions

Official military functions include graduations, retirements, commemorative balls (as for a service’s birthday), unit dinners, and many more. Generally speaking, they all have the same elements.

There may be music from a military band as attendees are seated. Attendees will be asked to rise for the entrance of the “Official Party,” which includes at minimum the Commanding Officer (CO), the Sergeant Major or Chief, the Guest of Honor, and the Chaplain. This party will enter marching to music.  Often, the chaplain will give an “invocation.” This is an opening prayer. Though it is the Chaplain’s choice, it is meant to be a space where everyone can invoke their own religious ‘blessings’ (for lack of a better word) on the proceedings, or not. 

The national anthem will be played and sometimes flags will be paraded out during this portion.  The Commanding Officer and/or the Guest of Honor will speak on the subject of the ceremony. During formal dinners, this may occur after food has been served.

The ceremony itself will take place–the change of command, or graduation, or retirement, or whatever, after which the chaplain will give a “benediction” intended to wrap up the event.  During the final note of ceremony, the branch hymn will be played.  All attendees will stand as the official party leaves.  After the “official” part of the ceremony is over, there may be a reception, or dancing, or follow-on events. It is considered polite to stay until the CO has left, or the Guest of Honor (if there is one).

Standard Rules and Protocols

There are many customs and courtesies in the military, but fortunately (for you) they apply in general only to service members. However there are a few rules that involve spouses and families as well.

When your service member is in uniform, he/she is required to act with dignity appropriate to the uniform, which means no public displays of affection such as kissing.

Service members also may not smoke or chew gum while in uniform. Usually they are not permitted to have their hands placed in their pockets either.

Service members may not eat or use a cell phone while walking when in uniform.

When in uniform, outside, and while wearing a cover (uniform hat), service members must salute senior officers and offer the greeting of the day: “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good night.” They must greet all senior enlisted members as well. Protocol dictates that the junior service member in rank must initiate the greeting to the senior member.

A uniform may not be ‘dressed down’–either it is worn correctly, or the service member changes out of it.

At official functions, attendees are asked not to chew gum or smoke. “Smoke Pits,” or designated areas outside the event where attendees may go and smoke, are available.

Although spouses and family members are not part of the military, it is polite to mimic the courtesy of your service member. Of course, you won’t salute or give the greeting of the day to everyone you meet, but acknowledge it when offered to you.



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