With today being Veteran’s Day, and so many Americans ready to tip their hat to those who have served, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the meaning and purpose of a salute. Merriam-Webster defines a salute as a sign or ceremony expressing goodwill or respect. It’s a way to address someone with expressions of kind wishes, courtesy, or honor.
What is a military salute?
When it comes to a military salute, in particular, it’s a custom by which a soldier signals acknowledgment of the due respect to a superior rank. Most often, it’s shown by a hand salute, which involves raising the right hand with the fingers and thumb extended and joined together with the palm down. Some military branches have variations on the exact placement and form of the salute, but the ‘palm down’ method is found to be the most common.
Salutes are reciprocated at the highest levels up to and including Heads of State and are indicative of mutual trust and respect. Medal of Honor recipients are the exception to this custom. Regardless of the Medal of Honor’s recipient's rank, officers and enlisted service members will always render the hand salute first.
Understanding what it means to signal a salute and how to appropriately do so in the company of a current or former member of the Armed Forces is an important part of being a respectful American. So, let’s get informed!
Should civilians salute a veteran?
While a salute is considered to be a gesture of respect, there’s etiquette involved when it comes to rendering a hand salute, whether you are a veteran, active service member, or civilian.
As a civilian, saluting soldiers is not a recommended way to honor a current or former member of the military. Even members of the Armed Forces who are out of uniform do not salute one another. A salute is part of an official protocol that active soldiers follow, and outside official duties, the military salute is rarely displayed.
With that in mind, a salute from a civilian may feel uncomfortable or awkward. So, instead of saluting, most soldiers would agree that a simple wave or “thank you for your service” is appreciated - and welcomed.
What about saluting the American flag?
Civilians are encouraged to be respectful of the American flag, especially during the National Anthem, but this does not include a hand salute. Rather, civilians should place their right hand over their hearts during the National Anthem. In addition, men and women should remove their hats. A military hand salute is considered a privilege earned by those who have served in the Armed Forces, so it should be reserved for this purpose.
As an interesting fact, it was tradition for only uniformed soldiers to salute the American flag during the National Anthem or when raising or lowering the flag. In 2008, the US Congress approved legislation allowing veterans and military members who are not in uniform to salute the flag.
When did the military hand salute begin?
The military salute has become of the most common elements of the military trade throughout the world, and unfortunately, the exact origin of this gesture has been lost in time. One thing we do know is that among armies throughout history, the right hand (designated as the "weapon hand") has been raised as a greeting of friendship.
In the British Army, as late as the American Revolution, a soldier would salute by removing his hat with his right hand. With the introduction of more cumbersome headgear in the 18th and 19th centuries, the act of removing one’s hat transitioned into simply grasping the visor and issuing a courteous salutation. From there, it became conventionalized into something resembling our modern hand salute. Courtesy required the inferior party to make the gesture first, which indicates a further connection between this ancient gesture and our present salute.
Regardless of the origin of today’s salute, one thing that has been consistent is it has been used to indicate a sign of respect, and it has evolved into what military members refer to as “customs and courtesies.”
Are there several types of salutes?
In addition to various hand salutes, there are gun or rifle salutes. The 21-gun salute, commonly recognized by many nations, is the highest honor rendered. Today, the U.S. military fires this type of salute in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the president, ex-presidents, and president-elect of the United States.
According to Arlington National Cemetary, the 21-gun salute is also fired at noon on George Washington's birthday, President's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the day of the funeral of a president, ex-president, or president-elect. The 21-gun salute is not to be confused with the three-volley salute (or three-rifle volley) rendered at military honors funerals.
How do we best honor our veterans?
Given the broader definition of “salute,” veterans typically find it acceptable and appreciated to be recognized for their service. You may find this article helpful, which outlines 11 various ways you can show honor to our country’s veterans.
At Resort Lifestyle Communities, one way we celebrate and salute our veterans is through a Wall of Honor located in each of our communities. We exhibit photos and share stories of how and where our past and present residents served our country. It’s one of our most beloved traditions to create this space. If you’d like to visit one of our displays, find a community near you and call to schedule a tour. We’d love to show you around. And if you happen to be a veteran, please let us know so we can give you a special welcome while you’re here!