Explaining military ranks and what they mean

Military ranks can seem complicated. If you talk to a veteran or active duty service member you will often hear them mention rank, rate, or grade. The grade is nothing more than your pay grade. Rank and pay grade go together, but don’t always mean the same thing. For example, in the Army, the grade E-4 can have two ranks: specialist and corporal. Same grade, but the corporal outranks the specialist. Regardless of branch, grade is going to be the same; E-1 to E-9 for enlisted ranks, W-1 to W-5 for warrant officers, and O-1 to O-10 for officers.

Rank is a little more complicated than grade, as there are sometimes two or three ranks per pay grade. For example, as an E-8 you can be a master sergeant or a first sergeant. First sergeant is determined by your position in the chain of command. If you are a company first sergeant, you will have the rank of first sergeant; if you are in charge of the motor pool, you will be a master sergeant.

A “senior enlisted advisor” is an E-9. There is only one sergeant major of the Army, one sergeant major of the Marine Corps, one chief master sergeant of the Air Force, one master chief petty officer of the Navy, and one master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard.

The enlisted ranks are also broken down into two parts, junior enlisted, which in the Army would be private (PV1) through specialist (SPC), and NCO (Non-commissioned officer), corporal through sergeant major of the Army. In the Marine Corps, private (Pvt) through lance corporal (LCpl) is junior enlisted, and corporal through sergeant major of the Marine Corps is considered a NCO. In the Air Force, airman basic (AB) through senior airman (SRA) is junior enlisted, where staff sergeant (SSGT) through chief master sergeant of the Air Force is an NCO. In the Navy and Coast Guard, junior enlisted starts with seaman recruit (SR), and the NCO ranks start at petty officer third class (PO3) and go through to master chief petty officer of their respective service.

If a service member were to ever see a warrant officer, they are saluted as you would an officer and are considered to be just below the rank of O-1. Warrant officers do not command troops and are considered specialists, or technical experts in a given field. For example, helicopter pilots in the Army are often warrant officers.

Officers are generally college-educated and commissioned by authority of the president. Officer ranks are pretty straightforward. For example, second lieutenants in the Army and Marine Corps are generally platoon leaders, first lieutenants often hold the position of executive officer at the company level, and captains are company commanders. Major is for the most part a staff position and lieutenant colonel is a battalion commander, whereas a full bird colonel would be a brigade commander. Brigadier general is again a staff position, while major general would be a division commander. Lieutenant generals and generals are lofty positions and can serve in a variety of roles. General of the Army (or General of the Air Force, or Navy First Admiral) is only used during wartime to ensure that the United States has a top rank equivalent to our allies.

The last time a five star rank was given was during WWII, and the last man promoted to five star general was Omar Bradley. He was promoted to that rank when he moved onto the Joint Chiefs of Staff so that he would not be outranked by his subordinate, General Douglas MacArthur.

By Mark Andersen, admin of IT application support II, and member of the Patriot Group

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