It is common knowledge that if someone is awarded the Medal of Honor, then that person will be saluted by other service members – whether the awardee is an officer or not. In fact, it is again, common knowledge, that even officers are obliged to salute enlisted Medal of Honor recipients. Soldiers I’ve known joke about this phenomenon unendingly, excited about the prospect of having the general “salute my ass.”
Well, it turns out that this common knowledge simply isn’t true, but a myth that has persisted for as long as I’ve been in the Army, and I’m sure much longer.
True, a Medal of Honor recipient gains access to a bevy of entitlements (see AR 600-8-22), including a supplemental uniform allowance, special identification cards (which brings other benefits), full military honors at burial, and admission to the military service academies for their children outside of the normal quotas (it would be interesting to see if anyone has ever done that, actually). But in no regulation does it say anything about saluting a Medal of Honor recipient.
Commonly, I’ve heard from soldiers “you’re not saluting the soldier, you’re saluting the award,” which sounds like it allows for this loophole, but unfortunately saluting an award also isn’t a “real thing.”
Like other myths I’ve covered, the root is rarity. Passing a Medal of Honor recipient is an extremely rare event, mostly because of the few that are still alive, most choose to get out of the military. For most of us, the closest we come into contact is the forever empty space at the PX parking lot reserved for “Medal of Honor Recipient.” CPT Swenson recently returned to duty, and I’m sure passing him in the parking lot must be a “significant emotional event” for the field grade officers who are waiting for him to salute as they walk past each other.
All this said, the myth is so ingrained and reverence for the Medal of Honor is so high that even the saltiest Command Sergeant Major might not make that on the spot correction. As a military, we simply don’t encounter Medal of Honor recipients enough to really know what to do. If there were Medal of Honor recipients all over the place, and everyone was saluting everyone, I’m sure we’d tighten it up and start digging into the regulations and stop the madness.