Salute or Stand at Attention During the National Anthem?
From my earliest days in the Navy, I learned that you don’t render a salute unless you are in uniform and covered (other services, please excuse my Navy focus). Covered means you are wearing your uniform hat. Since in the Navy we don’t wear our covers indoors (with a few limited exceptions), that means you don’t salute indoors.
When I was a brand-new Ensign in 1987, I attended Officer Indoctrination School (OIS) in Newport, Rhode Island. I made a good friend there – Mark Malakooti – and we would practice saluting, sometimes a little irreverently, every time we saw each other, popping a crisp salute no matter what we were wearing. One evening, we were approaching each other down the hallway, and I could see Mark getting ready to render a salute even though he was wearing his physical training (PT) gear, which consisted of a yellow t-shirt and blue shorts. What he couldn’t see was the OIS Commanding Officer walking right behind him. When Mark got close, he stopped, came to attention, and rendered a particularly fine salute. Not exactly sure what to do, I returned an equally crisp salute. The Commanding Officer immediately interjected, but seemed satisfied with the explanation that we were practicing. She did tell us not to practice that way any more – and that was the last time I rendered a salute when I was not in uniform and properly covered.
It’s now 30 years later, I’m retired, and I don’t wear a uniform, let alone a cover. So what am I supposed to do when the national anthem plays? I’ve heard it’s okay to salute, but I wasn’t sure under what circumstances saluting was permitted. As a result, I’ve always just stood at attention, like I would if I were out running on base in the morning when the bugle sounds colors. Well, I’ve finally taken the time to look up the answer.
Proper conduct during the national anthem is actually controlled by a federal statute: Title 36 of the U.S. Code, § 301. It states that when the national anthem is being played AND a flag is displayed:
A. Individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note;
B. Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in uniform [emphasis added]; and,
C. All other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.
If no flag is displayed when the national anthem is being played, “all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.”
So now I know – I have the option of saluting the flag or standing at attention with my hand over my heart. Given how engrained my Navy training is, I will likely choose the attention option from here on out. But for the veterans out there like me who didn’t know what their options were, I hope this is helpful.
May 23, 2018 @ 6:00 PM
If a veteran has a baseball cap on (not service related – civies) and wishes to salute during the anthem, does he/she leave said cap on?
Thanks for your time. CJM USArmy 71 – 74
May 30, 2018 @ 7:27 PM
Charles – First off, thanks for your service in the Army! Second, here’s how I would analyze your question. The statute governing salutes addresses three situations. First are individuals in uniform, which is clear. Second are veterans not in uniform who choose to salute. This provision makes no mention of taking off your hat if you are wearing one before you salute. The third section addresses veterans who desire to place their right hands over their hearts. It specifically says, if you are wearing a hat, take it off. Given that, you can presume that if Congress intended for you to take off your hat in the salute situation, they would have said so in the statute. That said, I would look at it as an issue of respect in that it seems more respectful to remove caps when not in uniform before saluting. No one will question you if you take off a baseball cap and render a salute. They will view it as a sign of respect. Someone may question you if you salute while wearing a baseball cap, especially if the cap is not in the best condition. So, my advice – whether you render the salute or put your right hand across your heart, remove your baseball cap. Thanks for the question! V/r, Dave Grogan
November 4, 2018 @ 12:18 AM
Marines do not salute uncovered – active or veteran.
June 8, 2019 @ 8:22 AM
That is a perfectly reasonable position to take. The most important part is simply showing respect for the flag.
June 5, 2019 @ 3:55 PM
Thank you for your expert advice in this article. I was taught to stand at attention and not put hand over heart, the hand over heart was for Pledge. I am not sure why I got this message, perhaps it was an instance where there was no flag? Now I can’t think of a time I have been present for the anthem without a flag also present. For a civilian at a sporting or other event where the anthem is sung or played pre-recorded, is it safe to say just always place hand over heart? And if you’re a lefty is it okay to use left hand?
June 8, 2019 @ 8:17 AM
Thanks for your comment! As a civilian, you should place your right hand over your heart. The federal statute does not allow the left hand to be used, so you should use your right hand. I hope that helps!
June 6, 2019 @ 1:46 PM
Thanks for referencing the code and providing some interpretations for those who are no longer active duty.
I think I’ll continue to stand at the position of attention when the anthem is played, or when a salute would typically be rendered. As the other poster mentioned, Marines (and Sailors) don’t render a salute when uncovered. Old habits die hard I suppose.
June 8, 2019 @ 8:18 AM
Mike – I’m with you. I just can’t render a salute when I’m uncovered and not in uniform.
July 31, 2019 @ 9:52 AM
I’m a little bit older Marine. Our training and etiquette was to salute when in uniform or under arms, but stand at attention when not in uniform.
Question of concern is when not in uniform, at position of attention, heels together at 45, BOTH hands by your sides, clinched fist, thumbs facing forward and pointing down.
This seems to contradict with the right hand over your heart.
What are your thoughts? As you’ve said habits are hard to break. No disrespect intended Judy instilled training.
July 31, 2019 @ 10:50 PM
Rob, I agree with you in that I used to stand at attention, too. When I read the statute, much to my surprise, I saw standing at attention wasn’t one of the options given, so I started to place my hand over my heart. A Marine standing at attention certainly demonstrates respect for the flag, so I personally do not have an issue with it. That said, because it wasn’t an option in the statute, I changed to putting my hand over my heart.
July 31, 2019 @ 1:49 PM
I have the same experience as Kristin. I am 73 and was privately educated in Philadelphia . We were taught to stand straight and face the flag for the anthem ; hand over heart for the pledge recitation . Was there a change in etiquette or was that the common practice in the 20th century ? Quite a few people are as confused as I am.
July 31, 2019 @ 11:01 PM
Diana, that’s very interesting. I was raised in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and am 60. I attended a public school. We were told instructed to take off hats during the national anthem and put our right hand over our heart. When I went into the military, I was told when not in uniform to stand at attention. After I retired from the Navy, I’d heard that veterans were being given the option to salute, so that’s when I did the research for this article and found that the appropriate actions are actually spelled out in a statute. Accordingly, instead of standing at attention (which I personally believe still shows respect for the flag) as I had learned to do in the military when I was not in uniform, I started putting my right hand over my heart. If you follow the guidance in the statute (as set out in the article), you will be on solid ground.
August 4, 2019 @ 11:06 AM
I’m an USAF vet, my father was a Navy WW11 vet (served in the Pacific). At 97 he died, and had military funeral. During taps, walking past a flag line etc. what is appropriate (to salute or not).
August 5, 2019 @ 10:27 PM
Sharon – What a history of service your family has — thank you for your service! I am going to need to do some research on your question and will post an answer as soon as I can. I found a relevant statute and some guidance on military funerals, but before I post anything definitive, I want to be sure what I am saying is correct. I will try to post an answer within a week. Sorry for the delay.
August 10, 2019 @ 10:07 AM
As I read the regulation, standing at attention with hands at the sides, without placing the hand over the heart, is proper for citizens of other nations, not for American citizens. By standing at attention without saluting, you present yourself as one without allegiance to this flag. I have seen that behavior recently from certain political candidates, and have found it disrespectful.
August 10, 2019 @ 11:17 AM
Stephen – thanks for your comment. My guess is that it’s not intended to show disrespect, but it’s because people are not aware of the statutory guidance. Some people may have been taught in schools when they were kids that standing at attention is an option. In fact, until I read the statute, I thought I was supposed to stand at attention with my hands at my sides and that doing so was rendering proper respect. That was one of the reasons I wrote the initial article–so that more people would be aware of what the statutory guidance is. I’ll be writing a follow-up article shortly as there is additional guidance available. I just need to complete my research before I put the information out as I want to be sure what I am saying is correct.
October 3, 2019 @ 9:47 PM
Not long ago a retired Navy Captain, who had also been a Marine Major addressed a Navy Ship’s Reunion. He stressed the importance of us saluting as a way for others present to have some idea just how many Veterans there are amongst the crowd, and that it is ok for them to also be recognized. As a VFW District Commander, I do encourage the practice of saluting the flag, while understanding why many will not. Either way, we are paying respect to our country and flag, don’t be afraid to let others know that you served by lifting your hand in salute
October 4, 2019 @ 8:31 PM
James – that’s a great response and I really like the thought that saluting is helping people recognize those who have served. As you say, the key is showing respect, and veterans have earned the right to choose.
November 6, 2019 @ 5:55 PM
As a Marine I was taught civilians cover their heart in reverence respect and allegiance but Military stood at attention presenting there heart in pride as defenders of old glory.
November 6, 2019 @ 8:50 PM
Andrew – that is exactly what I was taught. That’s why I was so surprised to see the federal statute.
June 18, 2020 @ 9:14 PM
I asked the band leader a my local college about veterans saluting out of uniform and fumbling while trying to remove the hat and saluting. It so happens he is is a retired veteran AND was the band Director at WEST POINT for 20 years. His simply reply was:”leave it on!”
I believe that I read someplace that the changes were signed by Bush the younger during his presidency.
June 18, 2020 @ 9:29 PM
Post Script to above: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/36/301
(B) members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in uniform; and
(Pub. L. 105–225, Aug. 12, 1998, 112 Stat. 1263; Pub. L. 110–417, [div. A], title V, § 595, Oct. 14, 2008, 122 Stat. 4475.)
September 20, 2020 @ 2:12 PM
I’m a veteran, and was at a night spot. They take a break and play the anthem w/ a huge wall flag. Being with a hat (cowboy) I stand at attention and salute. Afterwards recently, I was approached by a young man who was connected to the Marines. He nicely indicated to me, that since we were inside a building, we are suppose to uncover and use the hand over the heart. That’s what he was apparently taught.
I notice your US Code makes no mention of indoors or outdoors.
September 21, 2020 @ 8:13 PM
Thomas – thanks for your comment. I think you are spot on. Navy and Marines typically don’t wear covers indoors, so I’m sure that’s why the Marine mentioned it to you. But, as you note, the statute makes no distinction. I think what you did was permissible under the statute.
June 8, 2021 @ 4:40 PM
Great read. I am recently retired and training has been engrained in me to stand at attention both hands to my sides. I’m a firm believer in knowing the regs which during my career got me in and out of trouble often. I want to salute but it’s just so awkward for me out of uniform. Putting my hand over my heart is also super awkward. I’ve recently been exposed to the national anthem outdoors from multiple family graduations. And sure enough I stood at attention both hands to my sides. I guess I’ll have to try and break the habit and try the salute. I have saluted more than I ever put my hand over my heart so that seems the easiest choice.
June 8, 2021 @ 8:38 PM
Derek – thanks for your comment and I’m with you 100%. So far, I’ve not been able to salute out of uniform, I’ve gone for my hand across my heart. Old habits are really hard to break!
October 11, 2021 @ 6:10 AM
I am a U S Navy vet and agree with your comments. I was discharged over 60 years ago and the civilian hand salute does still seem a bit awkward, but it does give veterans an option to let know that you have served and are proud of your service.
October 12, 2021 @ 9:19 PM
Gary – Thanks for your comment – I always appreciate a fellow Navy vet!
November 11, 2021 @ 10:08 AM
Former Army here (1960s). For almost all my military time I was in civvies and we spooks, as “apparent” civilians, were taught the hand over heart (HOH) response.
However- There’s still the “recite the pledge or not” bit.
I have no problem, as a vet, with either HOH or salute but remaining silent during the pledge, especially among a vet gathering such as a vet’s luncheon in our community today (11/11/21). Others look strangely at me wondering about my fidelity.
Danged if I do, danged if I don’t.
November 13, 2021 @ 10:44 AM
Bill – I’d not heard of the remain silent during the pledge part – very interesting!
Stephen "Wally" Seibel
February 16, 2022 @ 7:23 PM
just a question…if a member of the Armed Forces of the US wins gold in the Olympics, do they salute or put their hand over heart for the national anthem?
February 16, 2022 @ 9:10 PM
Wally – Great question. I’m thinking if they are active duty and not in uniform, the correct answer would be to put their hand over their heart. I’m saying that given that this has been the customary way for military members winning gold medals to honor the flag. Although statute would allow a hand salute, my sense is custom governs here and the hand over the heart is appropriate. It’s also possible the military puts out specific guidance for this situation – I’m just not aware of it. Again, this is a great question!
March 25, 2022 @ 3:44 PM
Section “C” of the above code states men should remove their head dress but what about women? Do they remove their head covering also? Thank you
March 26, 2022 @ 7:25 AM
Paul, nothing in the statute would prohibit women from removing their hats and holding them in the same manner as men are required to do, but the statute does not require them to remove their hats as it does men.