Whether you are the one saying “I do” or a guest, a military wedding is something incredibly special. There’s just something spectacular about the pomp, traditions and formality – not to mention the uniforms! But unless you’ve been specifically taught about the hows and whys of military wedding traditions, it can all be overwhelming. This goes double (maybe triple!) if you’re the one planning a military wedding!
Why Military Weddings Are Different
One of the most immediate differences is pretty evident: military dress uniforms. When a bride or groom is in the military, they can opt to get married in their formal uniform(s).
Donning this iconic uniform is what sets military weddings apart. It lends an air of patriotism and elevates the formality of the whole affair. If other military personnel are involved in the ceremony, they might be carrying swords or sabers. Anyone who is carrying a sword must also wear white gloves in addition to their dress uniform.
Many military weddings will include a sword arch or saber arch. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a group of military personnel create a tunnel using swords or sabers. Then the newly married couple passes through the tunnel on their way out of the ceremony. Often, one or both of the new spouses will get a swat on the bottom as they exit the arch.
Really, military weddings are more than just the uniforms, swords, and swats. Military weddings are truly special because they put service to country at the center of the day, honoring patriotism and sacrifice as part of the wedding vows.
General Military Wedding Traditions
We’ve mentioned the dress uniforms, the swords and the arch of sabers, but there are more time honored traditions that often accompany military weddings.
Please note: Brides and grooms are not obligated to do any or all of these traditions. You are welcome to pick and choose those special touches that speak to you and your beloved.
As noted above, military brides and grooms may choose to wear their most formal dress uniform on their wedding day. When men are wearing their uniform, they should not have any additional adornments beyond their medals and ribbons. That means, no boutonnieres for the gentlemen! However, the ladies are welcome to carry a bouquet.
Attendants and Groomsmen:
If any members of the wedding party are also military members, they can wear their dress uniforms. White gloves should be worn for anyone who is carrying a sword; however, the groom and best man are exempted from this since they will be handling rings.
Seating by Rank:
While the guest list might not include anyone else in the military, if it does, there are certain protocols that should be observed. During both the ceremony and reception, service members should be seated by rank. For example, higher ranking personnel in attendance, like a commanding officer or other senior rank, should be seated near the front of the ceremony site and just behind the parents.
At the reception, you might opt to group military guests together at tables or scattered based on other associations with guests.
As the happy couple exit their ceremony, military members of the wedding party (or sometimes additional military personnel who have been requested just for this purpose) will assemble to form a sword arch.
Check the sword-handling requirements and rules for your particular branch of service. There might be restrictions based on rank (but not necessarily).
The sword arch is self-explanatory, but should definitely be practiced prior to the wedding day. Crossing the sabers just-so is not something that comes entirely naturally! There are no specific rules about the number of swords in the arch. You might have just two or twenty or more. At the tunnel exit, there might be a surprise swat for one or both members of the couple. This is often accompanied by a statement: “Welcome to the family” or something similar.
Military personnel can often have their ceremony and reception on base. Ceremonies might take place in a religious building on base, typically called the chapel. Receptions might take place at the base club or other social space.
If either person getting married graduated from a service academy, you can often use the chapel there for free. It’s a cool perk!
However, if you are opting to use a military chapel or social space, you will want to reserve well in advance. You might also need to be fairly flexible. Military wedding venues can book up pretty quickly, especially during prime wedding season in spring and summer.
You might also be asked, or wish, to consult with the installation protocol officer. They can help you explain the formality of the wedding, military attire guidelines and help you include a sign of respect in your special day.
Officiants and Wedding Ceremonies:
If you are getting married on base, you might also be able to use the services of a military chaplain or other religious officiant. However, you can also opt for a secular officiant. Again, the choice is entirely yours!
Military chaplains might also offer, or require, counseling prior to your wedding day. This can be a great way to ease into military life.
There are also not any particular traditions specific to the military in either religious or secular ceremonies. There are of course ways to incorporate nods to the military and selfless service into your vows or the general ceremony. Consult with your officiant to decide what is best for your personalities.
The length of each ceremony will depend on the religious traditions or the secular options the couple wishes to include.
Military Music Traditions:
Military music is some of the most iconic in America–and many military couples choose to incorporate service-specific marches or tunes into their ceremony or reception.
Instead of the traditional recessional, you might hear “The Marine Corps Hymn” or “The Army Goes Rolling Along” at a military marriage ceremony.
Typically, a bride might stand on the left of their partner. However, that is the side the sword will be on. So, a bride would then switch to the right side of their partner. This avoids the sword interfering with anything or clanging into the bride.
Attire for a Military Wedding
Military members may be wearing their dress uniforms. However, there are also different levels of formality even among this attire!
For example, officer dress uniforms with white pants are most often worn in the summer, as dress whites, or for super formal evening events, as the equivalent of black and white tie. Again, this is meant as a guideline and not as hard or fast rules for formality.
As a guest, you should look at the invitation to determine level of formality. Brides and grooms will often indicate the required dress here. Typically, morning and afternoon weddings are less formal than evening receptions.
If you know that either person getting married will wearing their evening dress uniform, this usually correlates to black or white tie. This typically means a floor length more formal dress for women and a tuxedo for men.
Regardless of time of day, a wedding where either a bride or groom will be in any form of dress military uniform will have a certain level of formality. Any dress uniform is at least the equivalent of a cocktail dress for women. Men should wear a suit and tie.
Missing Man Table:
Many military weddings, and formal events generally, will have a small single place setting on a table near the cake or visible to all. No one will sit here. Instead, the empty spot honors all those in the military who have made the ultimate sacrifice, who are missing or who have been prisoners of war.
There is often a bud vase with a single red rose, along with a written explanation of the meaning behind this special place setting. Often the seat may be pushed in or tilted to show that it is “taken.” In addition, the glasses may be turned upside down.
Cutting the Cake:
One of the most striking, and fun, traditions of a military wedding is the cake cutting. Now, you will typically see a wedding cake (or pie) are cut with traditional utensils.
However, military couples can make that first slice with a sword (or saber). This makes for an eye catching photo op and a sweet memory to recall in later years.
Your reception can be decorated as elaborately or simply as you prefer. This might mean that military decorations might be used in place of or in addition to more typical decor.
Many military couples might choose to feature American flags and service flags as part of their centerpieces. Flags can be displayed in other locations as well.
It’s all a matter of taste and preference.
Want more military wedding tips? I’ve got you. Read more:
- How to Save and Financially Plan for a Wedding as a Military Couple
- Simple Weddings: The Perfect Choice for the Military Life
- Courthouses & Quick Weddings: 14 Military Spouses Tell All
- 7 Easy DIYS Any Bride Can Do to Save Money on Her Wedding
Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!