What are Those Stripes and Bars?

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What are Those Stripes and Bars?

  1. 1. What Are Those Stripes and Bars?OverviewUnderstanding service ranks and recognizing the stripes and bars that represent them.  Some history of military rank and insignia  Rank, insignia, and pay grade: What do they mean?  Insignia: Who wears which ones and what do they represent?  Junior enlisted personnel  Non-commissioned officers  Warrant officers  Commissioned officers  ResourcesEntering military life for the first time can be both exciting and challenging. While tryingto adapt to the rigors of boot camp, OCS, or the uncertainty of your first assignment,you must also learn military customs and protocol. Knowing whom to salute is anecessity, since you will practice this ritual during your entire term of military service. Itbegins with a basic understanding of military rank and insignia. If you are married to aservice member, you will also want to know what all those stripes and bars mean. Beingable to understand rank and recognize insignia takes some study, but the followinginformation can help.Return to the TopSome history of military rank and insigniaLong ago, when military groups were first formed throughout the world, rank wasntnecessary. Service members were simply told something like, "Smiths in charge." Asmilitary groups grew, however, this system obviously became very confusing.Consequently, the creation of military rank became necessary to recognize who was "incharge." Todays military rank insignia reflect centuries of military tradition.In the U.S., George Washington established the practice of wearing insignia in theContinental Army. While the Army did have military rank, it did not have enough moneyfor military uniforms. As a result, Washington established the custom of using a knot ofribbon in service members hats as an insignia to indicate rank. Current U.S. militaryinsignia have both British and French roots. For example, the enlisted ranks in allbranches of service primarily use "chevrons" to signify rank. This comes from theFrench word for "roof," as a chevron looks much like a small, pointed roof.Return to the Top
  2. 2. Rank, insignia, and pay grade: What do they mean?While you might think the terms rank, insignia, and pay grade can be usedinterchangeably, they each actually have a separate and distinct meaning.  Rank/rate. The system of organization within the armed forces. Much like a company has employees, managers, and supervisors, the military has rank or rate to determine organizational structure. As rank increases, so does responsibility and compensation. The higher a service members rank, the greater responsibility he or she has over personnel, equipment, and assignment.  Insignia. The various emblems worn by service members to denote rank are called "insignia." Typically worn on the shoulder or collar, insignia make it easy to identify whom to salute. Enlisted insignia consist primarily of chevrons (with or without other detail), while insignia of commissioned officers can be bars, oak leaves, eagles, or stars. Commissioned officers in the Navy wear their appropriate pin when in regular uniform, but wear special insignia on their sleeves or epaulets when wearing dress blues or whites.  Pay grade. Categories used to equalize pay across the military service branches are called pay grades. The categories are represented by a letter and a number. For example, the "O" in O-1 stands for "officer," while the "1" is the positions level of pay. Enlisted pay grades begin with "E," and warrant officer pay grades begin with "W." Since pay grades are equivalent across the service branches, all E-1s, for example, receive the same compensation. This can get somewhat confusing, because the service branches use different rank names for each pay grade: an E- 1 in the Army and Marine Corps is called a private; an E-1 in the Air Force is called an airman basic; and an E-1 in the Navy is called a seaman recruit. In addition, certain enlisted pay grades have two ranks. For example, in the Army, a corporal and a specialist are both classified at the pay grade of E-4; however, the corporal holds a higher rank since she serves in a leadership role.Return to the TopInsignia: Who wears which ones and what do they represent?The ability to quickly recognize insignia is a must in the military. The best way to do thisis to study the insignia charts. (See the resources listed at the end of this article). Thefollowing gives some explanation of the emblems that make up insignia:  Chevrons. Worn by most enlisted personnel in every military service branch, the chevron is composed of V-shaped stripes. The use of these insignia can be traced to feudal days, when knights were awarded chevrons for capturing a castle
  3. 3. or other building. This may explain the chevrons "roofed" appearance and French root of word meaning "roof." In heraldry, the chevron denoted those who were head of a clan or, "top of the house." In the U.S. military, the chevron first denoted rank in the early 1800s when cadets at West Point wore them on their sleeves. Chevrons were later adopted as insignia for the Army and Marine Corps; however, they were worn "points down" until their present appearance was approved in 1902.  Bars. Commissioned officers at pay grade O-1 wear insignia consisting of one gold bar, while those at pay grade O-2 wear insignia consisting of one silver bar. Officers at the O-3 pay grade wear an insignia of two silver bars, commonly referred to as "railroad tracks." Warrant officers wear striped bars. It is unclear why the bar was selected for officer insignia.  Oak leaves. Officers at the O-4 and O-5 pay grades wear a gold oak leaf and silver oak leaf, respectively. The true origin of oak leaf use across the service branches is a mystery, though it could have been borrowed from the Navy. The Navy took much of its tradition from the British, and in 1650, King Charles II escaped his enemies by hiding in an oak tree. When the insignia is the same specifically with bars and oak leaves the junior rank is gold and the more senior rank is silver.  Eagles. Officers at the O-6 pay grade wear a silver eagle. The eagle has been a popular military symbol since Roman times. In addition, militaries routinely select insignia designs depicting symbols representative of their country. For example, the eagle with shield, arrows, and olive leaves was taken from the coat of arms of the U.S.  Stars. Officers at the O-7 through O-10 pay grades wear one, two, three, and four stars, respectively.  A note about certain officer insignia. A Naval officer wears the insignia of his respective pay grade bar(s), oak leaf, eagle, or star(s) when wearing the regular khaki uniform. However, when wearing a dress uniform, he wears a different insignia on the bottom of his sleeves in dress blues and on epaulets in dress whites. The warrant officer can wear epaulet insignia, as well.Return to the TopJunior enlisted personnelEnlisted personnel are the backbone of the military. There is a wide range of jobsavailable in all branches of the military, and the enlisted service members are those whoperform specific duties and eventually become specialists in their fields. As they risethrough the ranks, they can also fill leadership roles.  Who are the junior enlisted personnel? The service members in pay grades E-1 through E-4 in the Army and Air Force are considered junior enlisted service
  4. 4. members. One exception to this is that in the Army, both the corporal and specialist are at the E-4 level; however, only the specialist is considered junior enlisted. The corporal is considered a non-commissioned officer. Junior enlisted personnel in the Marine Corps and Navy occupy pay grades E-1 through E-3.  The types of positions held by junior enlisted personnel. Jobs ranging from computer operators to medical assistants to helicopter mechanics are available to junior enlisted personnel. They can request specific positions or areas and may or may not get them. The needs of a service members military branch, as well as the number of people already occupying a particular position, can affect whether or not a service member is granted his or her occupation or area of choice.  How to recognize junior enlisted personnel. Chevrons with or without added emblems denote the insignia of most junior enlisted personnel. Naval service members in pay grades E-2 through E-3, however, wear striped insignia instead of chevrons. There is no insignia for any branch service member in pay grade E- 1.Return to the TopNon-commissioned officersNon-commissioned officers (NCOs) are specialists in their areas. They can becraftsmen and/or supervisors and can provide education and training to both enlistedservice members and officers.  Who are the non-commissioned officers? Enlisted service members in certain pay grades have special status. Those in grades E-5 through E-9 are considered non- commissioned officers in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. A corporal (E-4) in the Marine Corps and Army is an NCO. In the Navy, service members in grades E-4 through E-9 are called "petty officers."  The types of positions held by non-commissioned officers. The NCOs specialize in specific occupations, much like the junior enlisted personnel. However, they are more experienced and often provide leadership to others. An NCO could be compared to the line supervisor in a factory he performs the job, but also serves as trainer and supervisor. Senior NCOs (E-7 and above) are like the assistant managers of a company.  How to recognize non-commissioned officers. Like junior enlisted personnel, NCOs wear insignia of chevrons with or without added emblems.Return to the TopWarrant officersThe warrant officers are highly skilled personnel. Their career track focuses onadvancing in their individual career fields, though they do serve as trainers andsupervisors. Warrant officers typically have some college education, if not an
  5. 5. associates or bachelors degree. There are no warrant officers in the Air Force. In thelate 1960s, when Congress created the pay grades of E-8 and E-9, the Air Forceeliminated warrant officer positions. Warrant officers outrank all enlisted servicemembers.  Who are the warrant officers? Service members in pay grades W-1 through W-5 of the Army and Marine Corps are warrant officers. The Navys warrant officers hold pay grades W-2 through W-4. Highly specialized in their occupations, warrant officers provide valuable talents and expertise to others regarding their specific technical field. They can also command units and activities, as well as instruct and advise personnel. Their numbers may be comparably few in the respective military branches, but warrant officers responsibilities are great and selection to the position is competitive. Once selected, these service members attend a warrant officer training program and enjoy many of the same merits as their commissioned counterparts.  The types of positions held by warrant officers. Examples of some warrant officer occupations are air traffic control technician, information systems technician, and veterinary services technician.  How to recognize warrant officers. Warrant officers wear insignia characterized by striped bars. Army warrant officers wear silver and black bars, while Marine Corps warrant officers wear either scarlet and gold bars or scarlet and silver bars. Warrant officers in the Navy wear bars of navy blue and gold or navy blue and silver. Warrant officers sometimes wear insignia on epaulets, as well.Return to the TopCommissioned officersBecause a "commission" is a designation by Congress on the advice of the President,commissioned officers comprise the highest ranks in the military. These positions carrysupervisory, managerial, and administrative responsibilities. Commissioned officersoutrank all enlisted personnel and warrant officers. Enlisted personnel and warrantofficers must salute all commissioned officers, and commissioned officers must salutesuperior commissioned officers.  Who are the commissioned officers? Military commissioned officers hold the pay grades of O-1 through O-10. They must possess a bachelors degree, and they often pursue a masters degree as well.  The types of positions held by commissioned officers. The primary role of commissioned officers is to provide general leadership and management in their area of responsibility. With the exception of positions such as pilots, doctors, lawyers, and nurses, most commissioned officers are generalists. Some commissioned officers are line officers, which means that they can command any
  6. 6. type of unit. Some commissioned officers are restricted, or non-line officers, who will generally command units within their area of expertise.  How to recognize commissioned officers. Commissioned officers wear insignia commensurate with their pay grade. These insignia include the bars, oak leaves, eagles, and stars.Return to the TopResourcesMilitary rank and insignia can seem overwhelming at first glance. But with a little studyand research, it will become second nature to you. These online resources offer moreinformation about rank and insignia (including insignia charts), as well as other relatedissues:Department of DefenseThe Department of Defense provides insignia charts at these links:www.defenselink.mil/specials/insignias/enlisted.htmlwww.defenselink.mil/specials/insignias/officers.htmlU.S. Armywww.army.milU.S. Marine Corpswww.usmc.milU.S. Navywww.navy.milU.S. Air Forcewww.af.milYour military support servicesEach service branch sponsors information and support programs for service membersand their families. You can call or visit any installation Army Community Service Center,Marine Corps Community Services, Fleet and Family Support Center, or Airman andFamily Readiness Center regardless of your branch affiliation.If you arent near an installation, National Guard Family Assistance Centers areavailable in every state. The Local Community Resource Finder on the National GuardFamily Program at www.jointservicessupport.org will identify your closest center.Military OneSourceThis free 24-hour service is available to all active duty, Guard, and Reserve members(regardless of activation status) and their families. Consultants provide information andmake referrals on a wide range of issues, including adjusting to military life. Free face-
  7. 7. to-face counseling sessions (and their equivalent by phone or online) are also available.Call 1-800-342-9647 or go to www.militaryonesource.mil to learn more.Return to the Top

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