What Are Those Stripes and Bars?

A service member with his daughter and wife who are pinning on his new rank

Hint: They aren't just arbitrary decorations.

If you're married to a service member, you probably already know that rank matters in the military. However, you may not have a firm enough grasp on the lingo to feel comfortable addressing service members properly. While it may take time to figure out what everything means, a working knowledge can help you feel more at home in a military family.

First thing's first: A quick vocabulary lesson

Here are some terms you'll need to know:

  • Rank: Think of rank as the military's organizational structure. The higher the rank, the more responsibility.
  • Insignia: Insignia on service members' uniforms denote rank and include various emblems including chevrons, bars, oak leaves or stars. These are typically worn on the shoulder or collar of a service member's uniform.
  • Pay grade: These are administrative classifications designed to equalize pay across the military service branches. Each pay grade is represented by a letter and a number. For instance, an officer at the first pay grade level would be referred to as an O-1.

Who wears what and why?


out insignia for each rank in your branch of service.

Here's a breakdown of the insignia:

  • Chevrons: Most enlisted personnel in every military service branch wear chevrons, or v-shaped stripes.
  • Bars: These are worn by officers in the lower pay grades. Officers at the O-1 pay grade wear one gold bar, O-2 wear one silver bar, O-3 wear two silver bars and warrant officers wear striped bars.
  • Oak leaves: Officers at the O-4 pay grade wear a gold oak leaf and 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, respectively.

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

What are the rank categories?

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. The level at which service members are no longer considered junior enlisted personnel also varies. For instance, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 a quick cheat sheet for how to address each rank in person:

  • Commissioned officers: rank (General, Lieutenant, Colonel) + last name
  • Warrant officers: Mr./Ms. + last name

Easy enough, right? It gets a little trickier with enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers:

  • Privates (E1 and E2) and privates first class (E3): Private + last name
  • Specialists: Specialist + last name
  • Sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeants first class and master sergeants: Sergeant + last name
  • First sergeants: First Sergeant + last name
  • Sergeants major: Sergeant Major + last name

Now that you have the lingo down, what about saluting? While your spouse could probably tell you all the rules about who salutes whom and when, all you need to know is this: Civilians are not required to render the hand salute to military personnel.

It may sound complicated, but you'll get the hang of it with time. And next time someone asks, "what are those stripes and bars?" you'll have the right answer.


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