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Military Protocol 101: Help for the Rest of Us

female Army retiree

After many, many, many years as a military bride, my heart still beats faster at any ceremony that involves our nation’s flag. And although I’m as patriotic as any of my red, white and blue-crazed peers, I have to admit that my response to the symbol of our nation’s glory has less to do with reverence and more to do with fear.

Is it time to stand yet? Is it time to stand yet? I feverishly wonder as I wait for the colors to pass the reviewing stand. Hand over heart, hand not over heart? I debate as the national anthem is played at sporting events. To get out of my car or not to get out of my car? That is the question I seek to answer when I find myself on a military installation at 5 p.m. as the flag is retired. Honestly, you’d think by now these responses would be second nature. And, really, they are. Yet, I still worry that I might get it wrong and, worse, that someone is watching me flub basic protocol. Clearly, I’m stuck in the rut of junior high.

Military social occasions and ceremonies can be nerve-racking, because they do require at least a basic knowledge of etiquette and protocol, no matter how recently you joined the ranks. A miscue can make everyone around -- especially you -- uncomfortable. A command of proper etiquette, on the other hand, puts people at ease, and that’s a good thing, says Jane Jollota, whose job as cadet hostess at the U.S. Military Academy includes an annual etiquette briefing for brides-to-be.

Etiquette, Jollota insists, is really just a charming combination of common sense and good manners and should be adhered to whether your husband is an E-4 or the commanding general.

If etiquette anxiety prevents you from attending (or enjoying) military functions, take control. Read up on the basics, and if you’re still unsure, Jollota recommends following the lead of the hostess or a senior wife. She’ll be the one sitting in the front row, sweating as the flag approaches!

Military balls

Military balls are one of the most fun military traditions -- but they have more than their share of protocols to go with them. Read all about what to expect at a military ball over here.

Parades and ceremonies

-- At the moment a flag passes in a parade or in review, stand, face the flag and put your right hand over your heart.

-- While the national anthem is played, stand at attention with your right hand over your heart, even if the flag is not displayed. This applies whether you’re indoors or outdoors. Don’t talk, chew gum loudly, eat or smoke while the anthem plays.

-- If you’re on a military installation at 5 p.m. as the flag is being retired, protocol requires that you stop what you’re doing, stand at attention facing the flag and stay that way until the ceremony is complete. If you’re driving, safely pull over and stop the car. You can remain at attention inside the car or get out, whichever you choose.

-- For more on official flag protocol, go here.

For any event

If an RSVP is requested, make sure to respond. And always, always arrive on time.

Formal dinners

Don’t sit down immediately. Wait to be instructed, and allow the gentleman seated to your left to assist you with your chair (even if you’re perfectly capable of seating yourself). Know your place-settings. Your bread plate is on your left, and your drink is on your right. When a place-setting features more than one fork, spoon, etc., start on the outside, and work your way in with each course. Don’t talk or leave your seat during a speech, no matter how dull, and remain quiet as the colors are retired.

Receiving lines

You’re only passing through. Don’t stop to chat, and get rid of drinks, plates or anything else in your hands before you reach the actual receiving line. You precede your husband through the receiving line, and he should introduce you to the first person in line, who will pass on your name.

Informal occaisions

Never arrive empty-handed. A small, thoughtful expression of your appreciation for the invitation is always appropriate. Jollota suggests a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine or flowers. My recent favorite is a bag of Starbucks coffee.

Follow an invitation to someone’s home with a thank-you note sent within 48 hours of the event.

“Always, always,” Jollota says.

Unit coffee groups

Some units have a coffee group. If you're invited to participate in the coffee group you may be meeting at the home of someone in the unit. There is no need to bring a hostess gift or send a thank you note after a coffee group meeting. Do, however, still remember to RSVP and arrive on time.

Don't know what to wear to an event?

There's almost nothing more uncomfortable than arriving at a social function only to discover that you're dressed inappropriately. When in doubt, contact the hostess before the event and ask for information about attire. Better to be safe than sorry!

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