The military salute is a long honored tradition with the origins of its beginnings largely unknown. There are a few theories about the salute dating back to the Roman Empire days. However it came to be, there are specific rules about how and when not to salute within the U.S. military.
History of the Hand Salute
Many military historians believe that the hand salute might have begun in Rome. Even in regular society, if a citizen wanted to meet with a senator or other public official, the citizen had to demonstrate he didn't have a weapon, and would approach with his right hand visible or raised.
Another theory suggests the practice stems from knights in armor, who traditionally raised the visors on their helmets with their right hands. Whatever its origins, the salute eventually came to be seen as a sign of respect.
It's interesting to note that the traditional right-handed salute looks a little different in the Navy. The palm is turned downward, the thinking goes, because sailors' gloves and hands would be dirty from working on the deck of a ship, for instance. It was perceived as insulting to show a dirty palm to a superior officer.
Through the centuries, various types of salutes have been used to honor each other, a nation's flag, and even national leaders. For instance, the United States once used the Bellamy Salute during the Pledge of Allegiance in schools of the late 1800's. This was a highly used salute across the country by the younger generation of the time. However, this salute looked too similar to the Nazi salute that Adolf Hitler adopted in the early 1930's. President Roosevelt and Congress changed the Pledge of Allegiance salute to be a hand over the heart during World War II as the Bellamy salute had largely been adopted by Fascists around the world.
Uniformed MIlitary Personnel
U.S. military personnel in uniform are required to salute when they encounter someone entitled by grade or rank to a salute, such as a superior officer. There are some exceptions: When in a moving vehicle it may be impractical to salute. However, if a gate guard at a base entrance or check point sees a senior officer in a vehicle, the guard will salute as the car passes through the gate. And when in a combat situation, a salute is forbidden, since it could signal to a watching enemy who the officers are. They are more likely to be considered valuable targets by the enemy.
The salute is considered a courteous exchange of greetings, with the junior military member always saluting first. When returning or rendering an individual salute, the head and eyes are turned toward the Colors or person saluted. When in ranks, the position of attention is maintained unless otherwise directed. All military personnel are required to salute the president, in his role as commander in chief. Also regardless of rank, any recipient of the Medal of Honor is granted a hand salute even from a more senior officer.
When Saluting Is Not Required
Salutes are not rendered indoors, except in cases of formal reporting. When in formation, members don't return a salute unless commanded to do so. The usual procedure calls for the person in charge of the formation to salute on its behalf. Even if the formation is marching holding weapons, there is a hand salute used by the leader of the formation typically with a sword or hand for the group.
If a senior officer approaches, while military personnel are gathered in a group (but not in formation), whoever notices the officer first calls the group to attention. Then, all members salute the officer, and remain at attention until they're given permission to stand at ease, or when the officer departs.
Veterans and Saluting Out of Uniform
A provision of the 2009 Defense Authorization Act changed federal law to allow U.S. veterans and military personnel not in uniform to render the military hand-salute when the national anthem is played.
This change adds to a provision which was passed in the 2008 Defense Bill, which authorized veterans and military personnel in civilian clothes to render the military salute during the raising, lowering or passing of the flag.
Traditionally, veterans’ service organizations rendered the hand-salute during the national anthem and at events involving the national flag while wearing their organization’s headgear, although this wasn't actually spelled out in federal law.