What Are Those Stripes and Bars?

One of the first things new recruits learn is the different military ranks and which ones they must salute. If you have recently married a service member, you may not understand what all those stripes and bars mean, but it's important for you to also know the rank of a service member in uniform and to address the service member properly. Knowing the military ranks by their insignia may take some study at first, but it will soon become second nature. The following information can help.

Some history of military rank and insignia

Long ago, when military groups were first formed throughout the world, rank wasn't necessary. Service members were simply told something like, "Smith's in charge." As military groups grew, however, this system obviously became very confusing. Consequently, the creation of military rank became necessary to recognize who was "in charge." Today's military rank insignia reflect centuries of military tradition.

In the United States, George Washington established the practice of wearing insignia in the Continental Army. While the Army did have military rank, it did not have enough money for military uniforms. As a result, Washington established the custom of using a knot of ribbon in service members' hats as an insignia to indicate rank. Current U.S. military insignia have both British and French roots. For example, the enlisted ranks in all branches of service primarily use chevrons to signify rank. This comes from the French word for roof, as a chevron looks much like a small, pointed roof.

Rank, insignia and pay grade: what do they mean?

While you might think the terms rank, insignia and pay grade can be used interchangeably, they each actually have a separate and distinct meaning.

  • Rank - Much like a company has employees, managers and supervisors, the military has ranks to determine organizational structure. As rank increases, so does responsibility and compensation. The higher a service member's rank, the greater responsibility the member 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 - Pay grades are administrative classifications used to equalize pay across the military service branches. There are nine pay grades for enlisted personnel, five pay grades for warrant officers and 10 pay grades for officers. Each pay grade is represented by a letter and a number. For example, the O in O-1 stands for officer, while the 1 is the position's level of pay. Enlisted pay grades begin with E, and warrant officer pay grades begin with W.

Insignia: who wears what

The ability to quickly recognize insignia is a must for military personnel and important for family members in addressing military personnel with respect. The following helps explain 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. 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 United States.
  • Stars - Officers at the O-7 through O-10 pay grades wear one, two, three or four stars, respectively.

Keep in mind that naval officers wear the bar, oak leaf, eagle or star when wearing the regular khaki uniform. However, when wearing a dress uniform, the insignia is on the bottom of their sleeves (dress blues) or on epaulets (dress whites). The warrant officer can wear epaulet insignia, as well.

To see what these insignia look like for each rank in your branch of service and to learn the names of each rank, go to the Department of Defense's display of officer and enlisted insignia.

Rank categories

Military ranks are organized into four hierarchical categories. It's important to know how each category is distinct from the others.

  • Junior enlisted personnel - Service members in pay grades E-1 through E-4 in the Army and Air Force are considered junior enlisted service 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. Each service branch has a different name for the entry pay grade. An E-1 is a private in the Army and Marine Corps, an airman basic in the Air Force and a seaman recruit in the Navy. Enlisted soldiers, airmen and Marines wear chevrons with or without added emblems. Sailors in pay grades E-2 through E-3 wear striped insignia instead of chevrons. There is no insignia for any branch service member in pay grade E-1.
  • Non-commissioned officers - Enlisted service members in pay grades E-5 through E-9, plus E-4 Army and Marine Corps corporals and Navy petty officers, are considered non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers can be craftsmen or supervisors and can provide education and training to both enlisted service members and officers. However, they are more experienced and often provide leadership to others. A non-commissioned officer could be compared to the line supervisor in a factory. He performs the job, but also serves as trainer and supervisor. Senior non-commissioned officers (E-7 and above) are like the assistant managers of a company. Like junior enlisted personnel, non-commissioned officers wear insignia of chevrons with or without added emblems.
  • Warrant officers - Service members in pay grades W-1 through W-5 of the Army and Marine Corps are warrant officers. The Navy's warrant officers hold pay grades W-2 through W-4. Highly specialized in their occupations, warrant officers provide valuable talents and expertise to others in a specific technical field. They can also command units and activities and instruct and advise personnel. Warrant officers wear insignia characterized by striped bars, and outrank all enlisted service members. There are no warrant officers in the Air Force.
  • Commissioned officers - Military commissioned officers hold the highest military ranks in the pay grades of O-1 through O-10. They must possess a bachelor's degree and often pursue a master's degree as well. The primary role of commissioned officers is to provide general leadership, administration 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, meaning that they can command any type of unit. Other commissioned officers are restricted, or non-line officers, and will generally command units within their area of expertise. Commissioned officers wear insignia commensurate with their pay grade, including the bars, oak leaves, eagles and stars. Enlisted personnel and warrant officers must salute all commissioned officers, and commissioned officers must salute superior commissioned officers.



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