MCGUIRE, N.J. - After a routine appointment at the 87th Medical Group I walked out the front entrance of the building through the overhang. I put my cover on and began to walk to my car as I would any other time.
Before I even made it five steps out the door, an airman in a flight suit sternly said, “Excuse me airman, do we not salute officers anymore?” It just so happens, this airman was a lieutenant colonel.
I took in the rank, the situation and then really questioned myself on why I had not saluted or even paid attention to my surroundings. I quickly thought back to what another airman had told me in technical school while standing in line for chow.
“Sloan, you don’t have to salute officers if you’re underneath an overhang,” he said.
I didn’t really think twice to question the airman’s advice … until now.
The lieutenant colonel stood staring at me; waiting for the excuse or reason I would conjure up for disrespecting his rank and, most importantly, his authority.
I gathered my thoughts, respectfully apologized and began to explain how we were underneath an overhang and that I was not required to salute. As the words of my explanation left my mouth, I could see the officers facial expression turn from frustrated to a disgusted grin.
He replied with, “Airman, it does not matter if you’re under cover or not. When an officer approaches you outdoors, you need to always salute. Saluting is a sign of respect and I expect you to uphold that tradition and courtesy.”
The officer turned around and entered the building.
As I lifted my feet from the spot I felt I had sunken into, I walked to my car confused and embarrassed for failing at something as simple as saluting procedures. What I found out later was that saluting procedures were not as simple or clear as I thought they were.
Upon returning to my office, I approached fellow service members telling them of this encounter asking them if I was in the right or the wrong.
The discussion went on for at least 20 minutes without any real consensus on what the proper saluting procedures were for overhangs. The only thing any of us really agreed on was, “When in doubt, salute.”
When my boss, Angel Lopez, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs chief, got wind of this conversation, she felt it was a perfect opportunity for me to learn and inform my fellow airmen of the proper saluting procedures through this commentary.
As I researched the proper saluting procedures, I found myself asking more and more questions, such as: From what distance should a salute be rendered? Do I salute an officer if my hands are full or if their hands are full? And the ever looming question, do I salute while under an overhang?
The saluting procedures seemed so simple and clear. Before, I felt confident telling the lieutenant colonel I was not supposed to salute, but I became very unsure of my answer the more I researched this tradition.
Maj. Mark M. Boatner III, author of Military Customs and Traditions, believes the origin of our hand salute derives from the long established custom for juniors to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. In the British Army as late as the American Revolution, a soldier saluted by removing his hat. Later, men were ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass. Over the years the practice evolved into something like our modern hand salute.
After doing several Google searches and looking through my professional development guide, the answers to my questions were not found. My mom always told me I was terrible at finding things, but that’s beside the point. It wasn’t until a Navy petty officer I work with came to my desk smiling holding a paper in his hand. He had heard about my saluting debacle and took it upon himself to set me straight.
The paper read, saluting outdoors means salutes are exchanged when the persons involved are outside of a building. For example, if a person is on a porch, a covered sidewalk, a bus stop, a covered or open entryway, or a reviewing stand, the salute will be exchanged with a person on the sidewalk outside of the structure or with a person approaching or in the same structure. This applies both on-and-off military installations.
I looked up briefly to the same smile he had on his face when he approached me. He told me to keep reading.
The paper went on to describe other saluting situations: the junior member should initiate the salute in time to allow the senior officer to return it. To prescribe an exact distance for all circumstances is not practical; however, good judgment should dictate when salutes are exchanged. A superior carrying articles in both hands need not return the salute, but he or she should nod in return or verbally acknowledge the salute. If the junior member is carrying articles in both hands, verbal greetings should be exchanged. Also, use the same procedures when greeting an officer of a foreign nation.
I learned a lot about saluting through writing this commentary and most importantly I know when and when not to salute an officer. Knowing all of this now, my hope is to never be in a situation where I have to explain why I had not saluted an officer. Also, my hope is that this commentary will help other airmen out. I hope they never find themselves in front of a lieutenant colonel telling the officer something a young airman had told them while waiting in line for chow.
A salute is a greeting. The gesture should always be rendered friendly, cheerfully and willingly. It is rendered with pride and as a recognition and sign of respect between comrades in the honorable profession of arms.
Editor’s note: Information in this article was derived from AFPAM 36-2241 VI.