The Commissioning Ceremony: Planning a Meaningful & Memorable Event
In two short months, cadets at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs across the nation will graduate and commission as second lieutenants in the United States (U.S.) Army. If you are one of these soon-to-be second lieutenants, this note is for you.
While many of you may participate in a “mass commissioning” as part of your USMA or ROTC graduation, each newly minted officer traditionally conducts his or her own, personalized ceremony with family, friends, and mentors. While some of you may simply want to hurry up, complete a hastily prepared ceremony, and get the heck out of town, you may regret that decision down the road. Earning your commission is a significant milestone in your life. It signifies your acceptance as both a member of the U.S. Army Officer Corps and a leader within the greater profession. However, it is not just about you. The commissioning ceremony is as much, if not more, for your family and friends that helped you get to where you are today. They too have been waiting for this moment with great anticipation and are undoubtedly extremely proud of your accomplishment and commitment. Do not cheat them out of what is also their moment.
As you begin thinking about your ceremony, I encourage you to consider the list below, which includes some recommendations regarding ceremony planning, coordination, and execution. While I make occasional references to West Point, for the most part, these recommendations apply just as well to ROTC as they do USMA.
Location Selection. As they say in the real estate industry, “Location. Location. Location.” For those graduating from USMA, West Point offers numerous picturesque locations to conduct your commissioning ceremonies. However, do not let a beautiful view be your only selection factor. Think about movement to and from the location. If you have mobility-impaired guests attending, take their comfort into consideration as well. You should consider picking a location that is significant to you. Be prepared to articulate that significance to your guests.
Contingency Plans. Have a plan for inclement weather, whether it be a horrific heat wave or a thunderstorm eagerly seeking to strike out at some shiny new lieutenant bars.
Multiple Ceremonies? There is nothing preventing you from conducting the ceremony more than once. If your parents are divorced/separated or you have other concerns regarding who you would like to invite or participate in your ceremony, there is nothing preventing you from doing multiple ceremonies. Just plan accordingly!
Rehearsal. It does not hurt to do a quick walk-through a day or two before graduation with those supporting your ceremony (flag bearers, officer giving oath, etc.). Doing a short walk-through will help ensure everyone understands the sequence of events and their individual roles in the ceremony. In Mission Command terms, it will help achieve “Shared Understanding.”
Text Group. You may consider putting together a text group with all participating parties so you can easily communicate and conduct any last-minute coordination, such as changes to the venue and/or execution time. Keep in mind, some of your guests may be attending/participating in more than one commissioning ceremony on graduation day.
Execution Timeline. Think through your timeline. After graduation you will need to finalize out-processing, clear out of the barracks, change your uniform, and move to your commissioning ceremony location. How much time do you need to perform those tasks? Where will you perform those tasks? Graduation day is busy, and post will be overflowing with excited family members and friends from around the globe. It will take longer to move about post than normal, and parking will be more challenging than normal! Make sure you give yourself an ample buffer for movement and linkup. Again, keep in mind that some of your guests/participants may be attending multiple commissioning ceremonies, so try to keep on schedule.
Linkup and Strip Maps. Keep in mind that most of your guests probably lack your intimate knowledge of the installation. Depending on who you have attending and their knowledge of the post, you may consider preparing a strip map to help guide them to your ceremony location as well as the nearest parking lot. You need to have a clear and detailed plan, especially if you are conducting a ceremony at a popular location. Just saying, “We’ll linkup at Trophy Point,” will likely result in your guests wandering from commissioning ceremony to commissioning ceremony trying to find yours!
You can deviate from the list below, as some personnel can pull “double duty.” However, this list serves well for planning purposes.
2 x Flag Bearers. If using cadets, they should be in matching uniforms appropriate for the occasion. If you are using a larger than standard flag or going to conduct your ceremony at a very windy location, you may need more than two flag bearers. You can have family hold the flag if you want. However, that will prevent them from fully observing the ceremony and snapping all those pictures!
1 x Enlisted Soldier or NCO (or it can be a Cadet). While many new officers receive their first salute from a cadet, I always encourage graduates to consider an enlisted soldier or NCO they know and respect for this honor, as these are the individuals that you are ultimately going to lead.
1 x Officer to Give the Oath. Most graduates pick mentors or family members who are/used to be in the service. They do not need to be active duty to give you the oath. They can be retired, reserve, or even inactive, so long as they did not resign their commission (resigning is different than simply ETS’ing). In some cases, an elected or appointed official may qualify as well.
Optional. The following personnel are not required but are worth considering.
1 x “Adjutant.” This individual will read the promotion narrative, or “publish the orders” (see below). I list this position as “optional” because rather than having a dedicated individual publish the orders, you could ask another participant to perform this function, such as the Soldier, NCO, or cadet rendering your first salute. However, having a dedicated individual to publish the orders allows you to include more people in the experience.
Designated Photographer. Many of you will have family members participating in the ceremony. As such, they will not be able to snap away with their fancy camera (i.e., the latest iPhone with 12 built-in camera lenses they bought just for this occasion). If you have a friend with an eye for photography, ask them to be your designated photographer. If you opt to have a designated photographer, let your family know. That way, they can relax and enjoy the ceremony rather than viewing the entire ceremony through a camera lens as the try to capture every moment.
1 x Army Green Service Uniform, Complete. Make sure your uniform is assembled in accordance with Army Regulation 670-1: Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms. Do not try to “eyeball it.” Use a ruler and be precise. Ask your TAC NCO and/or TAC officer to inspect it. After they inspect it, have someone else inspect it! Keep some extra pin backings (dammits) in your jacket pocket in the event of a uniform malfunction.
1 x U.S. Flag. Unless your venue has a flag prominently displayed, you will need to provide your own. Even if your venue does have a flag, you may choose to bring your own for sentimental purposes. Most people use a 3’x5’ flag. If you have a flag that is significant to your family for some reason (e.g., the flag draped over your grandfather’s casket or the one your mother/father took on all of their deployments) this ceremony can add to its story. If not, get a high-quality outdoor flag and start a history. It can be the flag that you take on all your deployments and use for future promotion ceremonies. You can pass it down to your children someday. (Note: Provide your flag bearers a block of instruction on how to properly fold the flag so they can complete this task at the conclusion of the ceremony.)
1 x Silver Dollar. You will need this for your first salute, otherwise known as the “Silver Dollar Salute.” I recommend graduates find a silver dollar that has significance rather than simply getting a random one from the local bank. Keep it in your pocket so you have it handy during the ceremony.
2-3 x Lieutenant Bars. You will need two bars if wearing the crushed service cap and three if wearing the garrison cap. I recommend having a few extra backings (dammits), as some hands may be a bit jittery. West Point graduates should receive one set (2) of lieutenant bars from their 20-year affiliate class at graduation. However, it is probably wise to have an extra set readily available.
Prepared Remarks. Have some notes to support a short speech at the conclusion of the ceremony. A few 3”x5” notecards tucked away in a pocket should suffice. Do not try to wing it.
Optional. The following items are optional but good to consider.
2 x Rank Shoulder Boards for Shirt. You will need these if you want more than two people to participate in “pinning” you. You can take off your jacket and have one to two people put the second lieutenant shoulder boards on your shirt.
Flowers. A nice gesture for a commissioning or promotion is to purchase bouquets for your mother, grandmother, soon-to-be mother-in-law, etc. You can present the flowers after the ceremony as part of your “thank you” speech. Just coordinate with one of the attendees (perhaps a cadet) to hold onto the flowers until it is time for you to present them.
Class Coin, Pendent, Other Mementos. You may consider giving select attendees (parents, grandparents, etc.) a small memento. A class coin or other small West Point memento can be a nice way of recognizing the support that these individuals have provided you. You can do this as part of your remarks or at a later time; it is up to you.
Welcome. The officer giving the oath welcomes all guests and makes a few short comments about the graduate and their journey through their commissioning source.
The officer may provide a brief explanation of the ceremony, importance of the oath, etc. on the front end or throughout the ceremony as desired by the graduate. This can help emphasize the significance of the ceremony and your commitment. As such, I strongly recommend such an explanation, especially for friends and family that may be less familiar with the military.
Promotion Narrative (Publish the Orders).
The “Adjutant” or other designated individual reads the following. All military personnel will stand at the position of attention as the adjutant reads the orders.
Attention to Orders. The President of the United States has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and professional abilities of: FIRST MIDDLE LAST. In view of these qualities and his/her demonstrated potential for increased responsibility he/she is, therefore, promoted in the United States Army to the rank of SECOND LIEUTENANT, effective 21 MAY 2022. By order of the Secretary of the Army. Signed – Christine E. Wormuth
Approximately half-way through the orders, designated personnel pin the second lieutenant bars on the graduate’s shoulders.
Pinning of the Bars.
The graduate should provide bars to the designated personnel prior to the start of the ceremony. They should ensure the personnel pinning the bars understand where they go. (Note: Prior to the ceremony, the graduate should pin the bars in the correct location and then remove them. This will leave small pin holes that will allow the individuals pinning the bars to see where they go and pin them in the correct location.)
Most graduates have two people pin on their lieutenant bars. In most cases, graduates pick their parents. However, it is the graduate’s choice. If the graduate would like more than two people to participate in this portion of the ceremony, there are a few options. A third individual can place rank on the garrison cap (if worn). Another option is to remove the AGSU jacket and have one or two other individuals put second lieutenant shoulder boards on the AGSU shirt. The graduate then puts the AGSU jacket back on for the remainder of the ceremony. This may be a good option if you would like to include stepparents or siblings.
Oath of Office.
The flag bearers, if not already in position, must have the flag displayed and in the desired position for the oath of office.
The officer giving the oath will direct the graduate to raise his/her right hand and repeat after him/her with the following:
I, FIRST MIDDLE LAST, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, in the grade of second lieutenant, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; so help me God.
Note: The graduate needs to coordinate with the officer administering the oath prior to the commissioning ceremony as to whether they will “swear” or “affirm.” The graduate must also decide whether they would like to include the last stanza, “So help me God.” This last stanza is optional.
First Salute. The graduate should briefly explain the tradition and why they chose who they did. After returning the first salute, the graduate presents the silver dollar.
Lieutenant’s Remarks. Remember, this ceremony is as much or more about the people that helped get you to where you are as it is about your personal accomplishments. You should prepare some remarks for the conclusion of the ceremony. You should take this opportunity to recognize parents, friends, etc. in attendance (or not in attendance) that helped you achieve this significant milestone.
Photos. Pose for additional photos. Take a look and make sure the ones that your photographer/parent took are acceptable. If you want to recreate moments for better photos, go ahead and do it. However, be mindful that several other graduates may be patiently waiting to use the same location for their commissioning ceremonies.
Clear Out. Be cognizant of other graduates waiting to conduct their ceremonies. Once your ceremony is complete, move to a location that facilitates your teammates’ ceremonies and photos.
Thank You Cards. In the days following your graduation and commissioning, take a few moments to send out formal “Thank You” cards to those who attended/participated in your commissioning ceremony. I recommend handwriting a short, personalized message in each card and send them out in the mail.
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Segelhorst is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and information operations practitioner. Ken is currently assigned to the United States Military Academy as an assistant professor within the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. He serves as the course director for the Superintendent’s capstone course, MX400: Officership. Ken is also a non-resident fellow with the Simons Center for Ethical Leadership and Interagency Cooperation at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.