You've decided to have a military wedding—complete with all the pomp and circumstance such a formal affair entails. Here some tips on planning the wedding of your dreams that still conforms to longstanding military tradition and protocol.
The main difference between a military wedding and a civilian wedding is that the bride and/or groom will be in uniform. An officer or enlisted personnel in the bridal party wears uniforms that comply with the formality of the wedding and seasonal uniform regulations. For commissioned officers, the evening or mess dress uniform is equivalent to the civilian black tie. Commissioned officers who elect to wear a sword or saber with their uniform should stand to the left of the bride so as to protect her from the blade.
For enlisted personnel, dress blues or Army greens should be worn. Remember, never wear a boutonnière with a military uniform. Military ribbons or medals are the only adornments permitted on the uniform.
The bride who is in the military may choose either to wear the formal uniform or a traditional wedding gown. A formal wedding gown, complete with a long, flowing train, will be the perfect complement to the military uniform. Remember, whether in uniform or a traditional wedding gown, the bride in the military may carry a wedding bouquet. Bridesmaids, if not in uniform, should wear long formal dresses to complement the formal attire of the groomsmen.
Any guest who is military, active or retired, should be invited to wear their uniform. Simply state which uniform is preferred on the invitation, i.e. “Service Dress Invited” or “Mess Dress Invited.” Non-military guests should dress in a comparable level of formalness.
Military invitations follow the same general guidelines of etiquette with one exception—the use of titles. Military titles are never abbreviated. The bride’s and/or groom’s rank and branch of service as well as any of the parents who are in the military. If the bride or groom or both are field grade officers, the rank appears before the full name with the branch of the service listed below. For company grade officers, their titles appear under the name on the same line as the branch of service. For enlisted personnel, the branch of service is listed under the full name—rank is not usually listed. If the military member is listed along with a nonmilitary spouse, the branch of service is not listed—as in “Colonel and Mrs. John Smith request the honor of your presence…”. The outside envelopes should have full names and full titles, i.e., Captain Thomas and Major Jennifer Little for couples with differing ranks or Captains Thomas and Jennifer Little for those who have the same rank. The inner envelope should have full titles and last name.
Most bases/posts have chapels available for wedding ceremonies. However, these locations book up early—up to a year in advance. To hold your wedding in one of these chapels, you must submit a request in writing to the chaplain. The good news is that there is rarely a charge for using a base or post chapel. Military chaplains by regulation cannot accept a fee for performing a marriage ceremony for military personnel—though a donation to the chapel fund is always accepted. If you have a civilian assist in the ceremony, an honorarium should be given. An important point to remember in planning a wedding in a military chapel is that you must seek permission to bring in outside florists, musicians, photographers, videographers, etc. However, the chaplain’s office should be able to assist in these efforts.
Many military couples opt for an off-base church, hotel or park. The uniforms, protocol, and traditions are what sets a military wedding apart. To enhance the patriotic atmosphere of an off-base location, use red, white, and blue in your color scheme when selecting flowers. Select a unity candle that reflects your branch of service. Include traditional military hymns while guests are being seated. Include a brief history of military wedding customs in your wedding program for your non-military guests.
Military protocol dictates that guests be seated according to rank. Officers with ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and above should be seated directly behind the families of the bride and groom. A Commanding Officer should have a seat of distinction that sets him/her apart from other guests. If the parents of the military member are not present, the CO should be seated in the front pew. The protocol office at your assigned military office will be able to assist you in determining the order of seating based on who you have invited.
Arch of Sabers/Swords
The most vivid memory most people who have attended a military wedding have is the Arch of Sabers (Navy) or Arch of Swords (Army, Air Force, Marines). Members of an honor guard or groomsmen (if all commissioned officers who are allowed by regulation to carry a sword/saber while in uniform) form an archway with upraised swords. This can either be done in the church as the couple recesses down the aisle or on the steps or walkway outside. The newly married couple passes through and pauses at the other side. This long honored custom has traditionally meant to ensure the couple’s safe transition into their new life together. Be forewarned grooms—your bride should be expecting a gentle swat on her behind as she exits the arch. The leader of the honor guard then gives the order for the saber/sword to be sheathed. All swords are returned to their scabbards at one time with one distinct click.
Many military wedding receptions are held at Officers’ Clubs or Enlisted Clubs on military installations. Because these facilities are familiar with military protocol, minimal amount of planning is required on your part in assigning seating. However, as these facilities also serve as dining facilities, you will not be allowed to bring in outside caterers or furnish your own alcohol. The facility management team should be able to assist you in obtaining permission for non-military photographers, florists, videographers, etc.
Military wedding receptions are also held at off-base facilities such as hotels or reception halls. Use flowers, balloons, and flags to help carry out the military theme. Consider displaying the American Flag and the flag of the specific branch of the service as part of the display behind the receiving line. Have the band or DJ play your military branch’s song to signal to guests that you have arrived. Engraved picture frame favors that contain a picture of the couple in uniform would be a great way to send your guests home with a tangible memory of your special day!
Many resorts offer special discounts to military personnel. Be sure to ask the booking agent at the resort or hotel. Your travel agent should be able to assist you in finding out about special packages offered for military travelers. Another option is to stay at one of the many military owned recreation sites such as Shades of Green at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, or the Hale Koa in Hawaii.
If you are getting married in one of the cities where we operate a local wedding portal, be sure to check it out for more ideas and information!
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