Colonel (United States)

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Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps insignia of the rank of Colonel. Style and method of wear may vary between the services.

In the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, colonel is a senior field grade military officer rank immediately above the rank of lieutenant colonel and immediately below the rank of brigadier general. It is equivalent to the naval rank of captain in the other uniformed services, such as the United States Navy, United States Coast Guard and the commissioned corps of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Public Health Service (USPHS).

The insignia of the rank of colonel, as seen on the right, is worn on the officer's left side (a mirror-image version is worn on the right side, such that the eagle always faces forward to the wearer's front; the left-side version is also worn centered on fatigue caps, helmets, ACU & ECWCS breasts, inter alia).

Promotion to colonel is governed by Department of Defense policies derived from the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980. DOPMA guidelines suggest 50% of lieutenant colonels should be promoted to colonel after serving a minimum of three years at their present rank and after attaining 21-23 years of cumulative commissioned service. The pay grade for the rank of colonel or naval captain in the United States is O-6.

Insignia[edit]

William Few in the uniform of a Continental Army colonel

The insignia for a colonel is a silver eagle which is a stylized representation of the eagle dominating the Great Seal of the United States (which is the coat of arms of the United States). As on the Great Seal, the eagle has a U.S. shield superimposed on its chest and is holding an olive branch and bundle of arrows in its talons. However, in simplification of the Great Seal image, the insignia lacks the scroll in the eagle's mouth and the rosette above its head. On the Great Seal, the olive branch is always clutched in the eagle's right-side talons, while the bundle of arrows is always clutched in the left-side talons. The head of the eagle faces towards the olive branch, rather than the arrows, advocating peace rather than war. As a result, the head of the eagle always faces towards the viewer's left. During World War II the military insignia for the rank of Colonel changed somewhat with the eagle facing the arrows.[citation needed] This was done only during war years. These special "war eagles," although rare, can sometimes be found in military surplus or memorabilia sales.


However, when worn as a single insignia with no matching pair, such as on the patrol cap, garrison cap/flight cap, or the front of the Army ACU, there is a split between the services on which mirror image of the eagle should be worn. In the United States Army and United States Air Force, the eagle is always worn with "the head of the eagle to the wearer's right," with the olive branch clutched in the eagle's right hand talons (see Army Regulation 670-1, paragraph 28-6 (a)(1)). In the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard and NOAA, the eagle is worn with "the head facing forward" on the wearer's right side of the garrison cover (see Marine Corps Order P1020.34G, Uniform Regulation, paragraph 4005d(1)). Since respective service's officer insignia is worn on the left side and the rank insignia is worn on the right hand side of the Navy, Marine, Coast Guard and NOAA garrison caps, the eagle is facing to the eagle's left with the olive branch clutched in the eagle's left hand talons, which is a mirror opposite to the wear of the single eagle for Army and Air Force officers.

Origins[edit]

The United States rank of colonel is a direct successor to the same rank in the British Army. The first colonels in America were appointed from Colonial militias maintained as reserves to the British Army in the American colonies. Upon the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, colonial legislatures would grant commissions to men to raise a regiment and serve as its colonels. Thus, the first American colonels were usually respected men with ties in local communities and active in politics. Such was the origin of the phrase "soldier and statesman."

The first insignia for the rank of colonel consisted of gold epaulettes worn on the blue uniform of the Continental Army. The first recorded use of the eagle insignia was in 1805 as this insignia was made official in uniform regulations by 1810.[citation needed]

19th century[edit]

A colonel of the Confederate Army wearing the three-star insignia

The rank of colonel was relatively rare in the early 19th century, partly because the Army was very small, and the rank was usually obtained only after long years of service. During the War of 1812 many temporary colonels were appointed, but these commissions were either considered brevet ranks or the commissions were canceled at the war’s conclusion.

Shoulder Strap from an infantry colonel in the Union Army

The American Civil War saw a large influx of colonels as the rank was commonly held in both the Confederate Army and Union Army by those who commanded a regiment. Since most regiments were state formations and were quickly raised, the colonels in command were known by the title "Colonel of Volunteers," in contrast to Regular Army colonels who held ranks from the "old school" of the professional army before the Civil War.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army maintained a unique insignia for colonel, three stars worn on the collar of a uniform. Robert E. Lee wore this insignia due to his former rank in the United States Army and refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate general, stating that he would only accept permanent promotion when the South had achieved independence.

After the Civil War, the rank of colonel again became rare as the forces of the United States Army became extremely small. However, many brevet colonels were appointed again during the Spanish American War, prominent among them Theodore Roosevelt and David Grant Colson.

20th century[edit]

A U.S. Marine colonel (center) during the Vietnam War.
Colonel Jeanette Sustad as Director of Women Marines.

World War I and World War II saw the largest numbers of colonels ever appointed in the United States armed forces. This was mostly due to the temporary ranks of the National Army and the Army of the United States, where those who would normally hold the rank of Captain in the peacetime Regular Army were thrust into the rank of colonel during these two wars.

By the end of the Korean War, appointments to the rank of colonel were standardized to be granted after roughly 16–18 years of service in the military; however, temporary colonel appointments continued well into the Vietnam War. The last temporary appointments to the rank of colonel were in the late 1970s; since then, all colonels have received permanent appointments upon promotion. Currently, an officer typically reaches the rank of colonel after around 21–23 years of military service.

21st century[edit]

Modern American colonels usually command Army infantry, artillery, armor, aviation or other types of brigades, USAF groups or wings, and USMC regiments, Marine Expeditionary Units or Marine Aircraft Groups. An Army colonel typically commands brigade-sized units (4,000 to 6,000 soldiers), with another colonel or a lieutenant colonel as Deputy Commander, a major as executive officer, and a Command Sergeant Major as a senior non-commissioned officer advisor. An Air Force colonel typically commands a wing consisting of 1,000 to 4,000+ airmen with another colonel as the vice commander and a Command Chief Master Sergeant as principal senior NCO enlisted adviser. Some USAF colonels are commanders of groups, which are the four major components of wings. Colonels are also found as the chief of staff at divisional level-(Army) or Numbered Air Force-level staff agencies.

In the modern armed forces, the colonel's eagle is worn facing forward with head and beak pointing towards the wearer's front. Of all U.S. military commissioned officer rank, only the colonel's eagle has a distinct right and left insignia. All other commissioned officer rank insignia can be worn on either the right or left side.

Colonels are sometimes referred to (but not addressed) as full-bird colonels or "O-6," which is their pay grade, in order to differentiate between colonels and lieutenant colonels, since lieutenant colonels are also referred to and addressed as simply "colonel."

Most Army colonels receive postgraduate level senior joint professional military education (JPME) at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.[1] The 2009 graduating class was 336 including 198 army officers and the rest divided among other military branches as well as foreign military leaders.[2] All USAF colonels will be graduates of the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama via in-residence at Maxwell AFB, or via non-resident seminar at another USAF installation, or via correspondence, or will be graduates of an equivalent senior JPME program sponsored by the National Defense University or one of the other US military services.

Honorary colonels[edit]

Main article: Colonel (title)

Some people known as "colonels" are actually recipients of honorary colonel ranks from a state governor and are not officers of the U.S. armed forces. In the 19th century the honorary colonels were military appointments and they still are nominally appointed to governor's staff, but without military rights or duties. Famous honorary colonels include Colonel Harland Sanders of KFC fame, a Kentucky colonel; Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, who received the honor from a Louisiana governor; and Edward M. House, known as Colonel House, a Texas honorary colonel and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson.

Famous American colonels[edit]

References[edit]