This one probably should have been immediately diverted to the non-issue file, but it seems that some people on social media have noticed that Vice President Kamala Harris hasn’t been returning the salutes of the military men and women she passes. This takes place when entering and exiting Air Force One or Air Force Two, as well as any building where military honor guards are stationed outside the doors. Generally, Harris is seen giving a jaunty wave to to the media and any onlookers, leaving the troops “hanging” while holding a salute as she passes. So is this a breach of protocol? Is it rude to the troops? Those are some of the insinuations being made. Politifact took a look at the question and, to their credit, did a fairly good job of explaining the situation.
In not returning salutes given to her by military personnel, Vice President Kamala Harris is breaking with recent practice, but not official protocol.
On March 19, a Harris spokesman posted a 20-second video clip of Harris walking up stairs to board Air Force Two as she departed Atlanta. Two members of the military honor guard saluted her, but she did not return the salute.
A few days later, social media posts that included the clip called Harris’ action “disgraceful” and said she shows “zero respect” for the military. One added an audio clip from a country song in which the singer sings, “F— you, b—-.”
This story was also picked up at Fox News, where pictures of both Mike Pence and Joe Biden (when he was Veep) returning the salutes of the military are displayed. But since we’re supposed to be fair to both sides, I’ll let you know in advance that I’ll be cutting Harris some slack here. Speaking as someone who has done plenty of saluting in my time, there are indeed very specific rules in the armed forces covering this subject. There’s an entire protocol section in basic training where you are taught how to salute properly and when such salutes are both appropriate and required. (My boot camp Company Commander, a First Class Boatswain’s Mate, used to scream at the enlisted recruits who would wrongly salute him. “You don’t salute me, you a**hole! I work for a living!“)
Since many of the troops assigned to this duty are from the Air Force, you can read the official regulations regarding salutes, along with other customs and courtesies, on page 60 of this document. It indicates that “salutes shall be rendered by all military Airmen when in uniform to the President and Vice President of the United States,” among many others. When outdoors, salutes will always be rendered to the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and service secretaries, as well as saluting the vehicles they are riding in if appropriately marked with flags indicating the office of the passenger.
In terms of returning the salute, however, there is no regulation calling for any of those senior civilian officials to return the salute. In fact, for general purposes, nobody who is in civilian clothing is even supposed to be saluting. It’s something that’s done while in uniform and wearing a head-covering. The President and the Veep don’t wear uniforms so the rules wouldn’t apply anyway even if it were a requirement. Also, this is not really a “tradition” in the military sense. Ronald Reagan was the first president to start returning the salutes of the troops as he passed. None before him did, not even Eisenhower. The President isn’t technically supposed to do it, but nobody is going to call him out for it, obviously.
Going one step further, you might at least be able to make the argument that the President is also in the military by virtue of being the Commander-in-Chief, but the Vice President does not occupy any place in the chain of command and, as such, is not in the military. It would actually be a breach of protocol for her to salute the troops, though (again) I’m sure nobody would call her out for it either.
Chalk this story up to a basic misunderstanding of how the official customs and courtesies of the United States military work. But if you weren’t familiar with them before, at least you had the chance to learn something new today.