Military weddings are very similar to regular civilian weddings, but either the bride or groom (or both!) are active serving members of the military. In some cases, retired military members may also choose to have a military wedding as a way to commemorate their time in the service. The primary differences between military ceremonies and civilian ones are the attire and patriotic traditions carried out during the wedding. We’ve put together this detailed guide to military weddings not only to inform you about these historical traditions, but to also pay respect to men and women in uniform.
In order to hold a military wedding, at least one of the parties getting married must be a part of a branch of the US military, whether it is the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or Air Force. If they are currently not active duty, they will need to provide written permission from the bride’s civilian pastor to hold the wedding in a military chapel.
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The bride and groom will need to undergo premarital counseling sessions with the priest or deacon when choosing an officiant and reserving the chapel. This will vary based on your location, but typically there will be four to six sessions of counseling.
Traditional weddings involve formalwear where the groom wears a suit and tie and the bride wears a white gown. In a military wedding, any enlisted personnel in the bridal party will wear the appropriate uniform. However, most military brides are still staying true to tradition by wearing a white wedding dress. Many men are also wearing their uniforms to the ceremony and then changing into a tuxedo or suit for the reception.
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Men who do choose to wear their uniforms are not allowed to pin boutonnieres or any additional items to their uniforms; instead, they wear their military decorations. There are two different levels of formality for uniforms: a Mess dress uniform is worn for white-tie or black-tie events, while a Class-A or Service dress uniform is more appropriate for events that call for suit and tie. Both types of uniforms are navy blue, but Class-A uniforms may be worn with white pants.
All saber or sword bearers must wear white gloves. However, the groom and best man do not wear gloves because they will be handling the rings.
Military weddings generally take place at military chapels or on academy grounds, such as the Army, Navy or Air Force. Military bases have chapels for various religions and it is free to book the officiant, though they do recommend a donation. Just like civilian wedding venues, military chapels book up quickly, oftentimes up to a year in advance.
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Rules regarding decorating the military chapel vary. All flowers, candelabra and other decor are arranged by the Chapel Altar Guild and are the same for all weddings. However, some chapels and churches do not furnish decorations and so the couple handles those themselves.
One of the most common military wedding traditions is the saber arch, or arch of swords. Sabers are curved, single-edged swords and are wielded by the ushers in the bridal party. Typically there are six to eight saber bearers in order to create this arch. The swords are raised to create an arch and walkway for the bride and groom to walk through, and the time at which this is done during the ceremony depends on the branch of military.
In the Army, the arch of swords takes place immediately after the ceremony, when the newlyweds are leaving the chapel. Upon cue, all saber bearers approach the center aisle and stand in two lines facing each other. An officer commands “draw sabers,” at which time all sabers are raised with the right hand with the cutting edge facing up, creating an archway for the couple to walk through. This signifies a safe entry into their new lives together. A common tradition is for the last saber bearer to gently and playfully swat the bride’s backside as she walks through the arch.
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In the Navy and Marine Corps, the arch of swords is only authorized for commissioned, warrant, staff noncommissioned officers and noncommissioned officers. The sword bearers form the arch at the bottom of the chapel steps in a similar fashion to that of the Army. The primary difference between the Navy and Marine Corps’ arch and the Army’s arch is that for the Navy and Marine Corps, they use swords instead of sabers and they are drawn at the cue to touch tips and form the arch, and upon a second cue they are turned so that the cutting edge of the blade is facing upwards.
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In the Air Force, saber bearers cannot also be ushers. The saber bearers form two lines directly in front of the chaplain, leaving enough room for the bride and groom to kneel. They then turn to face each other, then again to face the guests. As the bride and groom walk through, each pair of bearers turn to face one another and once the couple starts to kneel, the bearers turn in unison to face the Bible on the altar. The arch is formed as the newlyweds leave the chapel.
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Seating of Officers
At the ceremony, the bride or groom’s commanding officer and his spouse may sit in the front pew if the parents are not present, or they will sit near or with the immediate family members.
During the reception, military guests are traditionally seated by rank.
The wedding reception can be held at officers’ or enlisted clubs at the military base, or they can also be held in a more traditional setting such as at a hotel or restaurant. The bride and groom may choose to play their branch’s theme song or other regimental music.
American flags and other patriotic décor are commonly used in decorating a military wedding reception. Cake toppers of a bride and groom wearing their military uniforms are also a common piece of décor.
Along with the saber arch, swords are often used to cut the cake. This is one of the highlights of the reception. The groom hands his sword to the bride and with his right hand over hers, they cut the wedding cake together.
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Another common military wedding tradition is for the groom to give his bride a miniature version of his class ring as an engagement ring. During the ceremony, a simple band is exchanged to complete the set.
Military weddings are an age-old institution that represent honor, patriotism and respect. If you or your partner are eligible to hold a military wedding, it is a fantastic opportunity to pay homage to the time you or your partner spent serving our country. The traditions and customs of military weddings are a wonderful and special way to start your new lives together.