Military Life

How to Properly Address Military Servicemembers

It can be confusing to try to figure out how to address a servicemember. If you don’t know their rank, you can always use “sir” or “ma’am.” Otherwise, try to follow the guidelines below. 

Civilians should not salute servicemembers, since the salute is an official military gesture, but it is NOT disrespectful for a civilian to use proper titles to greet military servicemembers. On the contrary, it is a sign of respect! Keep in mind that retired military servicemembers keep their titles for life, so it is correct to address a retired General as “General Smith.”  

And if you’re thinking about retiring yourself, timing is everything. Choosing the right time to retire from the military can be difficult, so we outlined how to make the right decision.  

Guidelines for Addressing Military  

In general, use the title of address and last name. For example: “Colonel Johnston.” But there are some specifics to keep in mind: 

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Though not technically accurate nor appropriate, many abbreviate high ranking, longer titles to the one-word highest rank in that title. (**Use with caution**)

For example, a lieutenant is a lower rank than a colonel, so a lieutenant colonel would be addressed as “Colonel Thompson.” 

  • Address Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels as “Colonel.” 
  • Address First and Second Lieutenants as “Lieutenant.” 
  • Address Majors as “Major.” 
  • Address Captains as “Captain.” 
  • Address Brigadier Admirals as “Admiral.” 
  • Address Lieutenant Commanders as “Commander.” 

In some cases, variations on “Sergeant” are not abbreviated. 

  • Sergeants First Class and Staff Sergeants are simply called “Sergeant.”, but Master Sergeants are always addressed by their full title.  
  • Sergeants Major and First Sergeants are called by their full title, so “Sergeant Major” and “First Sergeant.”  

Servicemembers with shorter titles should be addressed as such. 

Note that gendered ranks are no longer used, so instead of “Seaman,” use the preferred term “Sailor.”  

  • “Sailor” 
  • “Ensign” 
  • “Specialist” 
  • “Private” or “PFC” (short for Private First Class)
  • “Corporal” 

Warrant Officers are part of the officer class. 

Warrant Officers are highly skilled specialists who often work in technical fields like intelligence. 

  • Address WO1 Warrant Officers using standard terms like Mr., Mrs., or Ms. 
  • Address WO2-WO5 level Warrant Officers as “Chief.” 
  • Enlisted servicemembers should salute Warrant Officers if they are outdoors. 
  • The terms “sir” or “ma’am” are appropriate if you don’t know their exact rank.


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