Wife pins insignia on military husband

How Military Insignia Works

You might be wondering what those stripes and bars are on your spouse’s uniform. Those symbols represent rank — the higher the rank, the more responsibility. Having a working knowledge of ranks in the military and how to greet each rank can make you feel more at home in a military family.

Terms you should know

While it may take time to figure out what everything means, here are some of the terms you may want to know:

  • Rank: Military rank is an organizational structure that determines a service member’s responsibilities and level of leadership.
  • Insignia: Service members wear an assortment of emblems on their uniform to denote rank. These emblems include chevrons, bars, oak leaves or stars, and can typically be found on the shoulder or collar of the uniform.
  • Pay grade: There are administrative classifications designed to equalize pay across the military service branches. Each pay grade is represented by a letter and a number.

Know the insignia for each rank

When addressing a service member, it’s important to understand who wears what and why. Here’s a breakdown of the insignia for each rank:

  • Chevrons: Most enlisted personnel in every military service branch wear chevrons or v-shaped stripes.
  • Bars: These are worn by officers in junior pay grades.
    • Officers at O-1 paygrade wear one gold bar.
    • Officers at O-2 wear one silver bar.
    • Officers at O-3 wear two silver bars.
    • Warrant officers wear striped bars.
  • Oak leaves:
    • Officers at the O-4 pay grade wear a gold oak leaf.
    • Officers at the O-5 pay grade wear a silver oak leaf.
  • Eagles:
    • Officers at the O-6 pay grade wear a silver eagle.
  • Stars: Officers at the O-7 through O-10 pay grades wear one, two, three or four stars.

You can learn what the insignia look like for each rank in your service branch by visiting Department of Defense’s display of officer and enlisted insignia.

Military rank categories

Each branch of the military has different ranks. There are four hierarchical categories:

  • Junior enlisted personnel: This refers to service members at the entry pay grades.
    • Each service branch has a different name for their junior enlisted personnel. For example, an E-1 in the Army and Marine Corps is called a private, in the Air Force an airman basic, and in the Navy an E-1 is called a seaman recruit.
    • The level at which service members are no longer considered junior enlisted personnel varies.
  • Non-commissioned officers:
    • Enlisted service members in pay grades E-5 through E-9.
    • Army, Marine Corps corporals and Navy petty officers in the pay grade of E-4.
  • Warrant officers:
    • Service members in pay grades W-1 through W-5 of the Army and Marine Corps.
    • The Navy's warrant officers hold pay grades W-2 through W-4.
  • Commissioned officers: Military commissioned officers hold the highest military ranks in the pay grades of O-1 through O-10.

How to greet each rank

Here's some guidance on how to properly address each rank in person:

  • Commissioned officers: rank (general, admiral, colonel, captain (Navy and Coast Guard), commander (Navy and Coast Guard), lieutenant commander (Navy and Coast Guard), major, captain, lieutenant, ensign (Navy and Coast Guard) + last name
  • Warrant officers: Mr./Ms. + last name
  • Privates (E1 and E2) and privates first class (E3): Private + last name
  • Airman: Airman + last name
  • Sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeants first class and master sergeants: Sergeant + last name
  • Seaman: Seaman + last name
  • Sergeants major: Sergeant Major + last name

Within the military, there are regulations on when, where and whom to salute. As a civilian, you are not required to render the hand salute to military personnel. However, understanding the lingo will help you feel more connected to your new military lifestyle.