Military weddings are a privilege of those in the armed forces or cadets. All are formal, with military personnel in dress uniform and commanding officers seated according to rank.
Although, there is no "official" military wedding protocol,
military weddings differ from tradition weddings in several ways; the main distinction of a military wedding is that the bride and/or groom, as well as service members in the wedding party, usually wear their uniforms. The type of uniform depends on the style of the wedding, the time of day, the season, and most importantly, the government-issued uniform manual:
"Mess" dress uniform is worn for both ultra-formal and formal weddings (i.e., a white or black-tie affair). For most branches, this means a dark-blue uniform, but during the summer months, the army and navy men may wear white pants.
"Class-A" or "Service" dress uniform is appropriate at a semiformal event (comparable to a suit). Like the "Mess" dress uniforms, these are also dark-blue and sometimes with white pants.
Any non-military wedding-party members simply wear traditional wedding clothes of the same level of formality as those in uniform.
Bride and bridesmaids: The bride can wear her uniform (and so can any bridesmaids), but many military brides opt for a traditional white wedding dress. Bridesmaids might wear navy bridesmaids' gowns to complement the colors of the men's uniforms, or any other color dress the bride prefers.
Groom and groomsmen: If any ushers are members of a different service than the groom (Army instead of Navy, for example), they simply wear a uniform of comparable formality to his. The groom and best man do not wear gloves because they will be handling the rings, but the other ushers wear white gloves throughout the ceremony. Boutonnieres are never worn with uniforms; instead, officers wear their military decorations.
Parents: Should the fathers of the bride or groom be active or retired officers, they may wear uniforms. So may mothers, although they usually choose to wear traditional mother-of-the-bride attire.
Guests: Military guests (active or retired) may wear their uniforms or traditional formal attire. For a black- or white-tie affair, put "Mess dress uniform invited" on the invites to request that your guests come in uniform. For a semi-formal wedding put either "Class A uniform invited" or "Service dress uniform invited".
If you marry in a military chapel, the chaplain will perform your
ceremony, and when you reserve the chapel you'll arrange a meeting:
few sessions of prewedding counseling may also be required. If
you'd like your civilian clergyperson to co-officiate, talk to both
officiants early about the possibility.
Chaplains are commissioned
officers and are paid by the service they represent. You do not need to
pay them a fee (although you should make a donation to the chapel.
It's customary to offer any assisting civilian clergyman an
Military chapels book quickly in the spring and summer months. Many are filled usually a year in advance. The clergy at the chapel will assist you in making arrangements. Most require pre-marital counseling, so check with them in advance. If you are planning a saber arch, check to see if the chapel has sabers you can use.
If the service is performed by a military chaplain, there is never a fee. He or she should be consulted before hiring musicians or a photographer.
Rules for decorating military chapels vary across the country, but all flowers, candelabra, and other decor are arranged by the Chapel Altar Guild and are the same for all weddings. Some chapels and churches do not furnish decorations; the couple plans them themselves.
Military custom dictates that a formal invitation to the ceremony be extended to the chaplain and his or her spouse. Depending on the size of the couple's station, as well as
commanding officers, their spouses and all or some of the staff officers
(and their wives or husbands) should be invited to the wedding.
Many military weddings take place at military chapels or on academy
grounds (Army, Navy, or Air Force). If you'd like to use another
location, run it by your installation.
Most military chapels are like
other in-demand ceremony sites -- you need to reserve them at least a
year ahead of time, often by applying in writing to the chaplain's
All service academies have more than one chapel; at the Air
Force Academy, for example, there are Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish
To marry in a military chapel at a service academy, you must be
a graduate or one of the following:
a dependent of a graduate;
officer or enlisted person assigned to the academy complex, or his or
or a faculty or staff member, active or retired, or his
or her dependents.
There will probably be no charge for the use of the
chapel, but a donation to the chapel fund will be expected. The average
donation amount is $50-$60.
Military Ceremony Honors
In a military wedding, honoring the bride (or the bride and groom) is an optional tradition based on the personal choice of the bride and groom. Following the religious rite, honoring the bride is a traditional ceremony in which the bride and groom pass through an arch formed by swords or rifles. Naval officers traditionally form the arch with swords.
Navy enlisted persons may honor the bride in a similar fashion. Enlisted members who do not bear arms can use hand salutes; those who bear arms can form an arch of rifles.
The tradition of the wedding arch of swords or honors differs slightly among the different branches of the armed services (see arch of sabers). In all cases, to have an arch of swords or honors is the choice of the bride and groom. It is an obligation of the best man or the groom to select those who will take part in this presentation, as well as to confirm that all weapons are at the ceremony. The senior usher is responsible for making certain that the ushers are adequately rehearsed in their roles in the honors ceremony as well as the religious rite.
After the religious rite, the senior usher forms all the ushers in two columns, and places them at the vestibule of the
RMF, facing inboard. As the newly married couple advances near the Religious Ministries Facility (RMF); exit. . they pause. . the senior usher then declares, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor to present to you, [rank or rate] and Mrs. John Doe. (Variations of this may be required if the bride, or both bride and groom, are military... whichever is common, acceptable, or suitable.) The newly married couple passes through the portal, and the senior usher commands, "Draw swords." On command, all ushers carry out only the first count of the movement, leaving their swords raised, with tips touching, to form an arch under which the couple passes. After the newlyweds have passed, the senior usher commands, "Return swords." All ushers return their swords in unison. The senior usher then dismisses the ushers.
This time-honored ritual may differ among the different branches of the armed services and can be altered to oblige enlisted persons. In all cases, however, only the bride and groom pass under the arch of swords or honors.
The Arch of Sabers
What most guests at a military wedding are most likely to remember is the "crossed sabers," also known as the "arch of sabers," or the "arch of
steel. The word steel, is synonymous for and used to represent either sabers for Navy or swords for Army, Air Force and Marines. Traditionally the bride and
groom walk through the arch of swords. That passage is meant to ensure the couple's safe transition into their new life together. The arch of swords is formed by
an honor guard made up of members of the military who would normally wear a sword or saber when in dress uniform. Should one of the honor guard also be
serving as a wedding attendant, in order to conform to tradition, he or she must be in full uniform. That includes wearing a sword or saber while in the wedding
party. No one out of full dress uniform may, when conforming to military procedure, carry a sword or saber. The commanding officer should serve as a resource
for the prospective bride and groom for information about who can and who cannot wear a uniform with a sword.
The arch of swords procedure is a simple and elegant one. The honor guard form two lines opposite each other. On the command of "draw sword" or "draw
sabers," the steel is raised with the right hand, with the cutting edges facing up. The couple enters the arch, kiss, and then passes through. The newly married
couple then salute the honor guard. Members of the honor guard then sheath the swords or sabers and return them to a carry position. Depending on church rules
and on the particular branch of service, the arch can be formed either outside or in the foyer of the chapel, synagogue or church.
Yet another tradition relating to the arch of steel is a gentle "swat to the backside" that the bride receives from the last swordsman. Grooms take heed. Should you
decide to adhere to this custom, it would be prudent to inform your bride about the possibility so that she isn't unpleasantly surprised. In addition, it is also traditional
for the wedding cake to be cut with a saber or other type of military sword.
The Guard of Honour
Although the ushers usually act as sword bearers, other officers may be designated as sword bearers--which would accelerate the arch of swords ceremony
following the wedding ceremony. It is customary that six or eight ushers (or designated sword bearers) take part in the ceremony. Although the chaplain's office
will furnish swords (sabers for the ceremony, it is customary, such as at West Point, for the cadets to furnish their own white belts, gloves, and breastplates. If the ushers have removed their swords, they now hook them on. In an outdoor ceremony, they proceed down the steps of the chapel where they form, facing each other in equal numbers.
All members of the bridal party wait until the
ushers swords are returned to their scabbards before the recessional proceeds.
Military receptions at academies or bases are often held at officers' or
enlisted clubs on the installation, or you can have a traditional hotel
or restaurant reception.
Military guests are traditionally shown to
their seats in order of rank.
You might play at bit of regimental music,
including the theme song of the bride's and/or groom's branch of
Decorations could include American flags and/or the standards
of your unit(s) in addition to flowers.
The highlight of a military reception comes when the bride and groom cut
the cake using a saber or sword, one belonging to the groom if he owns
one. The groom presents it to the bride and she cuts a slice of the
wedding cake with the groom's right hand resting over hers.
Finally, always get permission or verification from proper military
channels. If the wedding is to be held on base (or military grounds),
you should get permission for: photographers, flowers, etc. Please check
with your commanding officer, protocol officer or chaplain on the proper
protocol that should be followed when planning a military wedding. Not
only does each base differ, but also each branch.