When Veterans Are Allowed to Salute in Civilian Clothes

Rules for When and Not to Salute

Soldier saluting
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The origins of the military salute are not entirely clear. Some say it started with the Romans, and others believe it grew out of a tradition with medieval knights. However it came to be, there are specific rules about how and when to salute within the U.S. military

U.S. military personnel in uniform are required to salute when they encounter someone entitled by grade or rank to a salute, such as a superior officer.

There are some exceptions: When in a moving vehicle it may be impractical to salute. And when in a combat situation, a salute is forbidden, since it could signal to a watching enemy who the officers are. They're more likely to be considered valuable targets. 

The salute is considered a courteous exchange of greetings, with the junior military member always saluting first. When returning or rendering an individual salute, the head and eyes are turned toward the Colors or person saluted. When in ranks, the position of attention is maintained unless otherwise directed. All military personnel are required to salute the president, in his role as commander in chief. 

When Saluting Is Not Required

Salutes are not rendered indoors, except in cases of formal reporting. When in formation, members don't return a salute unless commanded to do so. The usual procedure calls for the person in charge of the formation to salute on its behalf.

 

If a senior officer approaches, while military personnel are gathered in a group (but not in formation), whoever notices the officer first calls the group to attention. Then, all members salute the officer, and remain at attention until they're given permission to stand at ease, or when the officer departs.

 

Veterans and Saluting Out of Uniform

A provision of the 2009 Defense Authorization Act changed federal law to allow U.S. veterans and military personnel not in uniform to render the military hand-salute when the national anthem is played.

This change adds to a provision which was passed in the 2008 Defense Bill, which authorized veterans and military personnel in civilian clothes to render the military salute during the raising, lowering or passing of the flag.

Traditionally, veterans’ service organizations rendered the hand-salute during the national anthem and at events involving the national flag while wearing their organization’s headgear, although this wasn't actually spelled out in federal law. 

History of the Hand Salute

While its exact history is unknown, the practice of a hand salute probably began in ancient Rome. A citizen who wanted to meet with a senator or other public official had to demonstrate he didn't have a weapon, and would approach with his right hand visible or raised.

 

Another theory suggests the practice stems from knights in armor, who traditionally raised the visors on their helmets with their right hands. Whatever its origins, the salute eventually came to be seen as a sign of respect. 

It's interesting to note that the traditional right-handed salute looks a little different in the Navy. The palm is turned downward, the thinking goes, because sailors' gloves and hands would be dirty from working on the deck of a ship, for instance. It was perceived as insulting to show a dirty palm to a superior officer. 

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