A Guide to Military Base Protocol for New Spouses

 A scene from a Customer Appreciation Case Lot Sale at the Fort Lee, Virginia, Commissary. (DeCA/ Jessica Rouse)
A scene from a Customer Appreciation Case Lot Sale at the Fort Lee, Virginia, Commissary. (DeCA/ Jessica Rouse)

A bugle calls in the background, the anthem plays, and a host of unfamiliar sounds and activity. Yes, I remember the first time we visited a military base. It was pre-9/11 and my husband was a captain in the Army Reserve. It was like I had entered a foreign land (but in a good way).

Twenty years ago, nothing was familiar. I was uncertain and intimidated. I look back on those days in amazement. I was so new to military life. I really had no idea how the military would change my life, our life. Four children later, two deployments, and decades of service, so much has changed.

During those first visits, base etiquette and protocol were unfamiliar and foreign. I just had to learn it with each visit. (And, yes, I made mistakes!) So, for those of you who are new to military life, or if you have family, or friends visiting, this is for you. No shaming here; just simple information to encourage you and build you up!

Remember etiquette and protocol is not a law, it is a set of guidelines, ones that I kindly suggest you follow. There is always a chance you may be even called out if you don't follow those guidelines, but rest assured, you won't spend time behind bars. No, there is not hard time for breaking an etiquette "rule."

Entering the installation

When entering an installation without a military ID, you most likely will need a sponsor. The days of moseying onto a base are long gone. You will most likely find numerous guards at the entry way or gatehouse with some serious weapons strapped to their sides. Be ready to offer IDs for everyone in your car. Everyone in the car may not have to show ID, but have it ready to go just in case. Do not be rooting through bags to find them. Asking for the car inspection and registration are all fair game, as well as random car inspections.

At night, turn your lights off as you enter the gate so as not to blind those on duty. Turn off your windshield wipers if it is raining, too.

If you're visiting a new installation, it is okay to ask one question, such as, "Where is the commissary?" Anything beyond that may unnecessarily hold up a line of vehicles.

Unfamiliar sights and sounds

Once on the base, be ready for some possibly unfamiliar sights and sounds. There will be bugle calls over the loudspeakers and announcements made that are echoed throughout the entire installation. Hearing canons, guns, helicopters, or other machinery are all distinct possibilities, depending on the type of base you are visiting. You may hear yelling in the distance and jodies (a rhyming cadence song) as troops run in formation.

Bugle calls

Anyone in civilian clothes should stop what they are doing, stand, face the flag or direction the music is coming from if the flag cannot be seen, take any hats off and place your right hand over your heart. During the bugle call, military personnel around you, even those in PT uniforms, will come to attention.

If you are driving on base during the bugle call(s) it is customary to pull over on the side of the road, if possible. Military personnel may get out of their car and show due respect during this process.

Types of bugle calls:

  • Reveille: This is the bugle call of either "To the Colors" or the "National Anthem" and is played with the raising of the colors (the American flag). You may also hear a cannon fire with the bugle call.
  • Retreat: Announces that the American flag is being lowered. The song "To the Colors" is played as the flag is lowered. This signifies the end of a day.
  • Taps is sometimes played to signify "lights out."


Be aware of the speed limit at all times while on an installation. Following the speed limit, which will most likely be under 20-30 MPH range, is of great importance. Although important off-base as well, it is very important due to the many troops you may find in formation. If you remember nothing else, remember the safety of our troops is of the utmost importance.

Also remember, troops in formation always have the right of way. Always and no matter what! You must yield, stop, or move over to accommodate troops in formation.


Have your military ID ready for purchases, and when entering some commissaries, you may be asked for that as well. If you do not have a military ID, you will need a sponsor with you.


Pay attention to your parking space, you do not want to accidentally park in the general's reserved spot.


Certainly obey all signage posted. You may see a variety of signs you are not used to seeing: Range signs, "restricted" and "dogs in training."


Keep our bases clean and respect the premises and the people around you at all times.

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