Military service flags are a tradition as old as the uniformed services themselves. The Department of Defense has specific rules about the kinds of flags which may be flown on federal installations including military bases and on government property in general.
A DoD memorandum from 2020 clarified the types of flags which may be flown. This was done in part to address controversy over Confederate flags and their display at military bases and elsewhere. DoD policy allows the following kinds of flags to be raised on federally-controlled property (listed in order of precedence):
- Flags of U.S. States and Territories, and the District of Columbia
- Military Service flags
- Flag or General Officer flags
- Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed civilian flags
- Senior Executive Service (SES) and Military Department-specific SES flags
- The POW/MIA flag
- Flags of other countries for official protocol purposes
- Flags of organizations in which the United States is a member (such as NATO)
- Ceremonial, command, unit, or branch flags or guidons
Note that the second type in the above list is “Military Service Flags”. What are these flags and why are they important?
There are two types of flag commonly described as military service flags. One is the official flag of the branch of service itself: the Army flag, Navy flag, etc. The other is the type flown by military families starting in World War One–a flag with a star representing a loved one called up to serve. We’ll explore both types below, starting with the flags representing each branch of military service.
The Origins Of U.S. Military Service Flags
Like your favorite superheroes, each branch of military service has its own origin story and the flag for each does too. Here is a brief history of each flag representing each branch of the U.S. military. Some entries in this section are more brief than others–the official sites for each branch of military service and accompanying literature to supplement them often presents only minimal information on this topic.
The Army Flag
The U.S. Army has a long history dating back to its establishment back in 1775. But would you believe that the U.S. Army flag is a lot more recent than that? The Army flag was designed in the mid-20th century, presented to the public in 1956 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Prior to 1956, the Army was the only military service not to be represented by its own distinctive, official flag.
The Navy Flag
The use of flags by any navy is critical–seafaring traditions including flying the flag of your nation or allegiance as a way to show “friend or foe” while at sea.
The U.S. Navy, prior to the adoption of the Navy flag and the creation of an official U.S. flag, commonly flew multiple flags including the “Grand Union”, and those bearing rattlesnakes or pine trees according to official Navy sources. But it wouldn’t be until 1957 when the U.S. Navy adopted its own official seal, which was then incorporated into an official Navy flag in 1959.
The Marine Corps Flag
The Marine Corps has the distinction of having the oldest service flag. The Marines carried many different types of flags into battle; thanks to Marine Corps Order No. 4 in 1925 (which designated gold and red as official U.S. Marine Corps colors) standardization was on the way. But it would take a few years to get there. In 1939, a new flag featuring the official Marine colors was approved for use and is today’s Marine Corps flag.
The Air Force Flag
Like the other service flags, the Air Force version was adopted in the mid-20th century. The flag was officially announced in 1951, and has remained unchanged since being introduced back then. Ironically, this flag contains imagery representing the original 13 colonies and while both the Army and Navy existed at the time those colonies were in existence, the Air Force itself was not.
The Coast Guard Flag
The origins of the Coast Guard flag are more mysterious than others. There is artwork from the early 1900s showing a Coast Guard vessel flying a white flag featuring an eagle and 13 stars (presumably representative of the original 13 colonies).
Some design changes and many decades later and we find a Coast Guard flag from circa 1950 with a similar design including a circle of 13 stars and the phrase Semper Paratus (‘always ready”) inscribed.
The Coast Guard adopted the design of the current flag in 1964, and this service is unique in that it actually has two flags. One is considered the Coast Guard “standard” (another way of saying “flag”) and the other is called the Coast Guard “ensign” and is displayed the way federal agents wear badges–it’s a sign that a vessel is operating on official business.
The Space Force Flag
The official flag for U.S. Space Force was unveiled in a ceremony in 2020 in the Oval Office by the first Chief of Space Operations General John W. Raymond.
Order Of Precedence For Military Service Flags
There is a distinct order of precedence for military service flags. This is assigned based on a variety of factors including which service was established first in American history.
In the case of individual military bases under the jurisdiction of a single branch of military service, multiple service flags might not be flown. In any joint service environment the flags of all participating military services will be flown.
The left-to-right order of precedence from viewer’s perspective for displaying military service flags is as follows:
- United States flag
- U.S. Army flag
- U.S. Marine Corps flag
- U.S. Navy flag
- U.S. Air Force
- U.S. Space Force
- U.S. Coast Guard
Above, we mentioned that the order of precedence for service flags is generally established with factors such as the age of the service. So why is the Coast Guard at the end of the order? The simple answer is that the Coast Guard does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense but rather the Department of Homeland Security.
In the event that the Coast Guard is ever transferred back to the Department of Homeland Security, its flag would precede that of the U.S. Air Force.
The Other Type Of Service Flag
The other type of flag commonly referred to as a service flag? The ones flown by military families when they have loved ones serving during wartime. Such flags, featuring a single star representing the loved one currently serving, are authorized to be flown by immediate family members:
- Stepchildren, stepsiblings, half-siblings
- Adopted parents
- Adopted children and adopted siblings of a United States service member.
This flag has its origins in World War One when Army Captain Robert Queisser designed a service flag in 1917 inspired by his sons who fought during World War One. The original design of the service flag features a single blue star, which represents an individual family member serving in uniform.
Once the use of this flag caught on (all the way up to the Governor of Ohio who adopted the flag) it would not be long before the service flag became a bona fide military tradition over the years, albeit one that ebbed and flowed for a time until 9/11 when use of the flag became far more widespread.
The service flag incorporates blue stars for loved ones serving in hostilities; the blue star is replaced by a gold star in the event the service member is killed while serving. There are a variety of organizations that use the service flag as a symbol including:
- American War Mothers
- American Gold Star Mothers
- Blue Star Mothers of America
The service flag is officially regulated by the Department of Defense, which issues guidance on who can officially display the Blue Star flag and under what circumstances. When displaying the service flag, it is always flown in an equal or subordinate size and position to the United States flag.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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