A Quick Guide to Displaying U.S. Military Flags Properly

Jane Cody

On a rainy November night, crowds filled a downtown theater, eagerly anticipating a Veteran’s Day symphony concert. They were not disappointed. The evening began with a color guard from a nearby Air Force base. The audience was hushed as the Guard, dressed in pristine uniforms, moved as one through a series of precision steps to present their flags. After standing motionless as the orchestra played the national anthem, they repeated their steps before retreating from the stage. It was an impressive yet mysterious display.

It was a vivid contrast with the color guard reappearance at the concert’s end when the orchestra performed Henry Mancini’s arrangement of The Armed Forces Medley. Mancini, an Air Force veteran who composed music for 100s of movies, was a master at building climax. Thus, his medley introduces each armed forces branch in inverse order of precedence. As the orchestra began playing, an announcer called out “Coast Guard,” and its organization’s flag was presented. Coast Guard veterans who stood up to sing their theme song dotted the theater. The pattern repeated as each Armed Forces branch – Air Force, Navy, Marines, and lastly, the Army – was honored. The veterans and audience cheers became increasingly enthusiastic as the orchestra transitioned into each service branch theme song. The evening was a rousing success. 

The Top Rule for Flying Military Flags

Order of precedence. It’s the number one rule of US military flag etiquette. Displaying the United States Military colors or flags is a solemn act that must be done with intention. Just as basic protocols surround the American flag, there are rules for flying military flags. Follow this guide for displaying US military flags to be confident your flag display shows the armed forces the respect and honor they deserve. After all, you don’t want to offend the military personnel you intended to honor.

If you plan to display one military flag, treat it with the same respect as the national flag. However, it’s essential to know the correct order when displaying multiple flags. The first step is to consider the direction from which people are most likely to view your display. From this position, the flags must fly in the correct sequence from left to right.

When displaying multiple military flags, the founding date of each military branch generally determines the order of precedence. However, there are a couple of exceptions — more on that later.  

Military Flags in Order of Precedence

  1. Army flag
  2. Marine Corps flag
  3. Navy flag
  4. Air Force flag
  5. Space Force flag
  6. Coast Guard flag — fly in the sixth position during peacetime

The Founding of Each Armed Forces Branch

The United States Army:

The US Army is the oldest and most senior branch of the American armed forces. It was founded by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, with George Washington as its commander. Its purpose? A unified force to defend the colonies in the Revolutionary War against Britain. The Army’s flag always goes first.

The United States Marine Corps:

Founded on November 10, 1775, the Marines were initially tasked with defending American naval ships but quickly proved invaluable in amphibian warfare. Although the Department of the Navy has governed the Corps most of its history, the Marine Corps flag is second in order of precedence.

The United States Navy:

The Navy was the last of the three branches formed during the American Revolutionary War. Like the Marines, the Department of the Navy administers the Navy, and the two are considered co-equal sister services. The Continental Navy was established on October 13, 1775, just three days after the Marine Corps. For this reason, the Navy’s flag is displayed third in the line of military flags.

The United States Air Force:

For over 170 years, the Army, Marines, and Navy comprised 100% of the American Armed Forces. But 20th-century technology demanded a new type of fighting force that attacked from the sky. Combat planes were introduced on August 1, 1907, as part of the United States Army Signal Corp. The US Air Force wasn’t commissioned as an independent armed forces branch until September 18, 1947, with the passage of the National Defense Act. Since then, the USAF flag has been in fourth position in military flag displays.

The United States Space Force:

Just as the invention of the plane gave birth to the Air Force, the proliferation of space technology presented a need for defensive weapons literally out of this world. The Space Force was founded on December 20, 2019, under the command of the Department of the Air Force. Since then, the Space Force flag has occupied fifth position in the Armed Forces order of precedence.  

The United States Coast Guard:

The earliest version of the Coast Guard was formed on August 4, 1790, and was known as the Revenue Marine. Later, in January, 1915, the Revenue Marine was merged with the US Life-Saving Service to become the Coast Guard. So why does the Coast Guard flag take the last position in a lineup of military flags? Or does it?

The Coast Guard Exception

Now, about those exceptions I mentioned earlier. The Coast Guard doesn’t follow the flag order’s date-of-creation rule. The reason is simple. The organization wasn’t founded to defend the nation. Instead, Alexander Hamilton created the department to ensure all merchant vessels paid any tariffs due. In other words, its mission was to nab tax evaders. As a result, the Coast Guard doesn’t report to the Department of Defense during peacetime. Throughout its history, it has been under the jurisdiction of various civilian organizations, including the Department of the Treasury (1790-1967), the Department of Transportation (1967-2003), and the Department of Homeland Security (2003-present).

However, during wartime, the Coast Guard transitions to the Department of Defense under the command of the Navy. When this happens, the military flag precedence order changes as well. During wartime, the Coast Guard flag is displayed fourth in the line of military flags after the Navy and before the Air Force.

Flying With Other Flags

Additional rules apply when you fly US military flags with other flags. As always, the American flag takes precedence in any flag display, flying in the first or leftmost position. If you’re flying a state flag, that should be in the second position. The flags of the different US military branches would be next, followed by the POW/MIA flag if included. If you have a center flagpole taller than the others, the Stars and Stripes should fly above the rest, and all other flags shift left.

At Flags USA, we know that displaying one or more US military flags is a solemn, respectful action. Shop our selection of military flags for high-quality, long-lasting, 100-percent USA-made flags. Then use this quick guide to ensure your US military flags are in the correct order and show your support for the United States Armed Forces.

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