Military Uniforms: Retirees & Veterans

Updated: March 21, 2021
In this Article

    There are a variety of rules and regulations governing the wearing of military uniforms. Each branch of service has a manual that dictates the wear, use, and maintenance of that service’s uniform items. There are references to allowed and disallowed wear of uniform items in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and there are even rules for uniform wear in the United States Code.

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    Not-So Uniform Rules For Retirees And Veterans

    As mentioned above, each branch of service will have unique uniform requirements, and the instructions to retirees and vets may vary from branch to branch. Some rules may vary in detail but drive toward the same goal.

    A good example? When retirees are forbidden from wearing the uniform. For the Air Force, this includes any situation where the promotion of commercial interests is concerned. The Army and other service branches have this specific prohibition, too, in their own ways. What does the Air Force specifically say about this issue?

    The government’s Air Force Retiree Services official site states, “Wear of the uniform is prohibited for all retirees…in connection with the promotion of any political or commercial interests or when engaged in off-duty civilian employment”.

    In this area, what does the U.S. Army say? It actually takes the opposite approach by listing the only circumstances in which retirees and even non-retired veterans may wear the Army uniform. This information is found in Army Instruction 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia.

    In most cases, no matter what the specifics of the regulations for each branch of military service have to say on the subject of uniform wear by retirees and veterans, the end result is the same. You are expected to wear the uniform appropriately, on the right occasions, and you are expected to NOT promote commercial or political causes while wearing the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

    What The United States Code Says About Non-Active Duty Uniform Wear

    A federal law known as 10 U.S. Code § 772, when wearing by persons not on active duty authorized, gives some general guidelines as to who is authorized to wear a military uniform when not on active duty.

    This guidance includes more than just retirees and veterans and it’s a very good way to get an idea of how seriously the DoD takes these uniform issues for various reasons. Who may wear the uniform that a service member wears when not on active duty?

    • Members of the Guard and Reserve
    • Members of the “Naval Militia”
    • Retired officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps “may bear the title and wear the uniform of his retired grade”
    • Those discharged honorably or under honorable conditions may wear the uniform “while going from the place of discharge to his home, within three months after his discharge”
    • Those not on active duty “who served honorably in time of war in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps may bear the title, and, when authorized by regulations prescribed by the President, wear the uniform, of the highest grade held by him during that war”
    • When acting in a film or theatrical presentation, as long as “the portrayal does not tend to discredit” the armed forces
    • An officer or resident of a veterans’ home administered by the VA is permitted to wear a uniform
    • While attending “military instruction conducted by the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps”, a civilian may wear the uniform prescribed by that armed force if the wear of such uniform is specifically authorized under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of the military department concerned”

    Common Rules For Wear Of The Uniform As A Veteran OR As A Retiree

    Some common rules for uniform wear apply to all, regardless of status. You cannot wear your military uniform:

    • In connection with political or commercial interests
    • During off-duty civilian employment
    • At public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies, or public demonstrations, “except as authorized by competent authority”
    • Any situation where wearing the uniform “would bring discredit upon the Uniformed Services”
    • When “specifically prohibited” by DoD Regulations
    • In criminal or civil court
    • At any event deemed to be “anti-government in nature”

    There are additional restrictions. You cannot wear a battle dress uniform to a formal event, for example. The uniform worn must be appropriate to the event. The wearer must have insignia, rank, medals, and ribbons, etc. that were either current at the time of military discharge (retirement or separation) OR are current. You cannot mix and match.

    Wearing The Uniform As A Military Retiree

    Military retirees–those who served for 20 years or more and receive or are eligible to receive military retirement pay–are permitted to wear their uniforms in more circumstances than those who separated from military service but did not reach the qualifying number of years of duty to draw retirement pay.

    For the purposes of these rules, anyone medically retired qualifies as a military retiree.

    Wearing The Uniform As A Veteran

    Veterans are described as military members who served but did not accumulate 20 years of service. These troops separate from military service but do not draw retirement pay.

    Wearing a uniform as a veteran is technically only permitted during special occasions “typically centered around military service and family events,” including military funerals, weddings, etc. Military-themed holiday events such as the 4th of July may also be appropriate for uniform wear as long as the events don’t violate other guidelines associated with political speech, employment, etc.

    The same wear of the uniform rules mentioned above applies, including the prohibition on mixing and matching uniform items which are current and/or those worn at the time of separation.

    Wearing The Uniform As A Medal Of Honor Recipient

    Medal of Honor recipients are authorized to wear their military uniform “on any occasion” with the following specific exceptions:

    • At public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches or rallies, or other events “which may imply official military sanction”
    • During political activities
    • Associated with private employment or commercial interests
    • Working in any civilian capacity
    • At civilian court proceedings, “when the conviction would bring discredit”

    Grooming Standards While In Uniform As A Retiree/Veteran

    Obviously, those who wear the uniform after retirement or separation cannot be forced to maintain the same grooming standards, including weight, hair cut and color, jewelry, fingernails, accessories, etc., as active duty troops.

    That said, it’s considered a standard part of military customs and courtesies to apply the same grooming standards to non-active duty/retired/separated uniform wear as when the veteran or retiree served.

    Customs and courtesies in this area ensure a more presentable public appearance, and the military is quite interested in how it looks to those in the civilian world. Maintaining a minimum standard of grooming and presentation when wearing the uniform once off active duty is useful.

    In the same way that one does not mix a Navy uniform with an Army uniform, it’s considered bad form to allow grooming standards for this type of uniform wear to get too lax. In the same way that there are specific customs and courtesies associated with the wear of medals and ribbons, the wear of a pilot’s flight jacket with civilian clothes, and other concerns, the grooming issue is an important one, aesthetics-wise.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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