Getting military stories right

If you’re not a military person and you’re writing on a military topic, especially around Veterans Day and Memorial Day, you want to get the information right or you could end up in some knowledgeable person’s cross-hairs.

I’ve gotten plenty of calls from folks correcting me on everything from what a Japanese knee mortar was to where MacArthur is buried.

To help out my co-workers at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., I came up with a military style and reference guide years ago. I’m thinking you might find it interesting and informative, so in honor of Veterans Day, here it is, with the items in no particular order:

Veterans Day pays tribute to all U.S. veterans. It’s observed on Nov. 11 because the First World War ended on Nov. 11, 1918. For more info:

Memorial Day honors the war dead. For more info:
The bugle call is taps. Lower case, no quotation marks.

Don’t say 21-gun salute unless you mean 21 artillery pieces firing in succession to salute the president or a foreign leader. What we see around here is a rifle squad of seven men firing three volleys. Say something like, “A rifle squad fired a salute.” Don’t call it a “firing squad.” Usually, people aren’t executed at these ceremonies.

Don’t write U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, etc. if the context is clear. If they’re not in the U.S. Army, whose army are they in? Panama’s? Just say, “He served in the Navy” or “She joined the Air Force.”

It’s the Department of Veterans Affairs, not the Veterans Administration. The Veterans Administration was created in 1930. It became a Cabinet-level department, with the title of Department of Veterans Affairs, in March 1989. VA is acceptable on second reference.

Flags fly at half staff on land. At sea and on naval installations they fly at half mast.

It’s the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve (not Naval), Marine Corps Reserve, Air Force Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve – all singular. Collectively, though, they are the reserves (lower case). A person can be an Army reservist (lower case), Navy reservist, Air Force reservist, etc.

The National Guard is part of the overall reserve but is state-controlled, despite the title. It’s the Guard (capitalized), the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and Pennsylvania Air National Guard. And if you’re a National Guardsman (capitalized) or a guardsman (lower case when the word stands alone), you’re a reservist. If you’re a woman in the National Guard, you’re still a guardsman, not a guardswoman. The Guard can be called into action by a governor or president.

Pennsylvania’s National Guard is descended from the colonial militia, created by the Assembly (what was then the Legislature) in November 1755 during the French and Indian War.

Pennsylvania Army National Guard:
Pennsylvania Air National Guard:
Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs:

There are soldiers (Army), sailors (Navy and Coast Guard), Marines and airmen (Air Force, even if you’re a woman). Marines are not soldiers. The Marine Corps is under the Department of the Navy. Soldiers are in the Army. Even though soldiers can also be sea-borne, the Corps has made its identity a branding issue to set it apart from other branches of the armed forces. Even the capitalization of Marines is something the Marines insist on.

Need an explanation of a military term? Here’s the site for the Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military Terms:

The nation’s highest military honor is the Medal of Honor. It’s given by Congress for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty.

Before 1947, there was no Air Force. Through World War II, air crews flew for the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps.

The Army Air Corps was born in 1926. In June 1941, before we entered World War II, it officially became the Army Air Forces (note the plural). Force of habit had folks during WWII continuing to refer to the Air Corps, even though that title had been dropped. Even today, it’s common to see and hear “Air Corps.” But don’t write Air Corps unless you’re quoting someone. The correct reference is Army Air Forces. “He was a colonel in the Army Air Forces.” The Air Force became a separate entity under the National Security Act of 1947.

Don’t write that three troops were injured. When dealing with small numbers, break it down: Two Marines and three soldiers were injured. “Troops” has to do with size of force, especially if that force is integrated. (An integrated force includes soldiers and Marines, for example.) This AP example is correct: There were an estimated 150,000 troops in Iraq. There’s no threshold number for when you can say “troops.” Just remember to use “troops” when talking about the overall size of a force, not when referring to individuals.

Helpful websites:

Department of Defense:
National World War II Memorial, Washington:
National World War II Museum, New Orleans:

Local sites:

Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council:
Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project:

Good hunting!

2 responses to “Getting military stories right

  1. Great story today, David. Glad you could clear all of that up for so many people.. I will be heading to Moore Elementary School tomorrow with Dave Baab and Calvin Summers, a WWII veteran and his nephew, a Vietnam veteran to give a day-long presentation to the students. Should be very patriotic.


  2. Hi David – looking back at emails not opened (we were away fishing 10/18 to 11/15) and found this one of yours…quite interesting and I have printed it out for my file. I think it will come in handy planning this year’s Veterans Remembrance. p.s. one of the reasons our ceremony is the day before Memorial Day is because we remember Vets both living and dead, as you know. I also make the point in the booklet and verbally. Hope you have a good year…keep writing!!!!! Susan


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