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Understanding Military Rank Insignia at Military Schools

Date Posted:  Wednesday, September 2, 2020

 

Some months back, a visitor arrived on our school's campus, and as he got out of his car I instantly felt my muscles tighten and my brain go on full alert.  

You see, he was wearing the uniform of a US Navy officer and on his navy blue uniform coat I saw two narrow gold bands and a very wide gold band ringing his sleeve at the cuff. Without even thinking about it, I knew that this man was a powerful leader, a top-level officer, because I instantly recognized his rank as that of Vice Admiral...that's like a 3-star general in the US Army.

I was born a Navy brat. My father was a Chaplain in the US Navy who retired at the rank of Captain. I knew that a Vice Admiral was a big deal...and even though I was a middle-aged man now and hadn't been on a navy base in decades, I had an instinctual reaction when I saw that admiral's sleeve.

For most families, however, that send their sons to a military-style high school like ours, military rank insignia can be baffling to them at first. It seems like some kind of secret code symbol that only the initiated can understand. Recent surveys tell us that only 7% of adults in the US are military veterans, so the number of people who are very familiar with military rank insignia is quite small. I often get questions from family members asking "What does all this rank stuff really mean?"

In this blog post, I'll help you understand what military rank means, how you can identify an individual's rank by the insignia on the uniform, and what role rank plays in the leadership structure of a typical Corps of Cadets at a military school.
 

Understanding Military School Rank Insignia

Here at Fork Union Military Academy, although we are an independent military system and are not affiliated with the US military, we use a rank system similar to that of the US Army, and we use the same rank insignia as is used by JROTC and ROTC programs. You may have observed our cadets on campus or viewed pictures of them in our photo galleries, you have probably noticed that some of them wear metal insignia pins on their hats or uniforms. These insignia show the cadet's rank in our Corps of Cadets.

The insignia on this cadet's hat indicates his rank in our Corps of Cadets.

What is rank?

A cadet's rank indicates where that cadet fits in the hierarchy (or chain of command) of leadership within the Cadet Corps. Rank is a clear identification as to who is in charge within a group of cadets. You might think of rank as a badge of leadership.

  • Our cadet ranks are based generally on the rank structure used by the United States Army.
  • The concept of military rank dates back to at least the Greeks and Romans, and perhaps even farther back in history than that. The US Army's rank structure came into being during the first days of the Continental Army under George Washington's command during the struggle to gain independence from Great Britain in the late 18th century. The Continental Army in turn drew its rank structure from the military traditions followed in Europe, including Great Britain.
     

What does "chain of command" mean?

The chain of command is the basic leadership structure of the Cadet Corps.

  • Authority and responsibility flows down from the top through a specific series of ranks. Each person in the chain of command is accountable to a superior, and may himself have leadership responsibility for cadet units that are accountable to him.
  • Cadets are responsible for setting the example for other cadets, listening to the guidance of those above them, and following the orders or directions given to them by those cadets who are at a higher rank.
  • The rank insignia is worn on the uniform in designated places where it will be easily visible.
  • Once you have learned how to identify a cadet's rank based on his rank insignia, you will better understand where that cadet falls in the leadership structure of the Cadet Corps.
     

Cadet Ranks Used at Fork Union Military Academy

Enlisted Ranks

Cadets start out at Fork Union Military Academy as part of the enlisted ranks.

  • As they continue in their cadet career here, those cadets who demonstrate initiative, responsibility, and leadership potential have the opportunity to advance in rank.
  • As cadets are promoted in rank and become Noncommissioned Officers (called NCOs), they gain greater responsibilities and may be given authority to lead other cadets in units of progressively greater size and complexity. First a cadet may become a squad leader, then may earn leadership posts at the platoon level, then the company level, and ultimately, perhaps, at the battalion level.

Enlisted rank insignia consists of a single chevron or stripe (for a Private, if insignia is worn by Privates), and an additional bar or rocker underneath for a Private First Class.

All new cadets start at Fork Union Military Academy at the rank of Private. Privates typically wear no rank insignia.

A cadet who performs well and has good conduct may earn promotion to Private First Class.


Cadet NCO Ranks

As a cadet earns promotion to the noncommissioned officer or NCO ranks, he begins to have the opportunity for more responsibility within the Corps of Cadets.

NCO rank insignia also are made up of chevrons or stripes, and bars or rockers. Simply put, the higher the number of stripes and bars, the higher the rank.

 

The first NCO rank is Corporal. A cadet with the rank of Corporal may be given responsibilities within his platoon or company such as helping to manage supplies, laundry, and other tasks important to the cadet unit. The rank insignia consists of two chevrons or stripes.

Sergeants may be given a wider range of responsibilities, including perhaps being named a Squad Leader with leadership responsibility over a small group of other cadets. The rank insignia of a Sergeant is three chevrons or stripes.

As a cadet achieves the rank of Staff Sergeant, he may be tasked as a Squad Leader, or even a Platoon Sergeant, or may be given other responsibilities appropriate to his rank and abilities. The rank insignia for a Staff Sergeant adds a single bar or rocker below the three chevrons.

Platoon Sergeants will typically carry the rank of Sergeant First Class. Other responsibilities for cadets of this rank may include Supply NCO within their company, Company Public Affairs NCO, or similar roles. A second bar or rocker is added below the three stripes on the rank insignia of a Sergeant First Class.

Master Sergeants may earn more significant responsibilities, and even be given command of small units such as the Honor Company or Color Guard. Three stripes and three bars make up the rank insignia of a Master Sergeant.

First Sergeants usually serve as the senior NCO within a company, assisting the Company Commander and Company Executive Officer, and supervising the work of the other NCOs within the cadet company. The rank insignia of the First Sergeant rank keeps the three stripes and bars and adds a diamond in the center.

There is usually only one Command Sergeant Major in the Cadet Corps. The Command Sergeant Major is the senior noncommissioned officer and reports directly to the Battalion Commander. The CSM establishes policies and standards pertaining to performance training, appearance, and conduct of all cadet noncommissioned officers and privates. At the rank of Sergeant Major, which is one step above First Sergeant, the rank insignia trades the center diamond of the First Sergeant insignia for a star in the center. Fork Union Military Academy does not typically use the rank of Sergeant Major in its Cadet Corps, however. The insignia for a Command Sergeant Major adds a wreath around the star in the center.

Cadet Officer Ranks

Officers are the cadets who have been put in charge of cadet units or oversee significant functions and responsibilities within the Cadet Corps.

The rank insignia for officers consist of either silver balls or silver diamonds. The greater the number of balls or diamonds, the higher the rank, with diamonds indicating higher rank than balls.

 

As a cadet is promoted into the officer ranks, as a Second Lieutenant he may be assigned responsibility as a Platoon Leader or assist in other roles at the company level. The rank insignia is a single silver ball.

Cadets at the rank of First Lieutenant will carry significant responsibility at the company level including leadership roles in training, activities, or service as the Company Executive Officer, the second highest-ranking role in the company, directly assisting the Company Commander.

Company Commanders and primary Battalion Staff officers typically carry the rank of Captain.

The rank of Major can be attained by cadets serving in upper roles, such as an interim Battalion Commander, a Battalion Executive Officer, or Operations Officer of the Corps of Cadets. At the rank of Major, the rank insignia changes from balls to a diamond insignia. The single diamond of a Major outranks the three balls of a Captain.

The rank of Lieutenant Colonel is typically reserved to the cadet who is serving as Battalion Commander of the Corps of Cadets and is the highest rank that can usually earned by a cadet at Fork Union Military Academy.

The rank of Colonel is the highest rank a cadet can achieve at Fork Union Military Academy and is awarded on very rare occasions to a Battalion Commander or other cadet who has performed exceptionally well during his time in that role during the school year, and, in the opinion of the Academy President and Commandant of Cadets has earned the honor of being promoted to full Colonel rank prior to the conclusion of his final school year. The promotion ceremony elevating the cadet's rank to Colonel usually occurs in the final days of the school year and is one of the highest honors that can be accorded a cadet at Fork Union Military Academy.

The Value of Military Rank at Military Schools

The military rank system at a boys military school like Fork Union Military Academy helps create an environment that supports positive peer pressure.

Unlike most public schools where social standing is often defined by the brand of clothing or athletic shoes worn by students, or other skewed measures of personal value, a military rank system builds social standing based on actual achievement. Students who perform well can earn promotions in rank and gain greater responsibilities—as well as benefits—as they rise in rank.

This completely reconfigures the social hierarchy in high school.

The adolescent cliques based on superficial criteria are no longer the dominant factor when a student enrolls in a military school. Instead, the student's own ability and performance become most important in determining that student's place in the hierarchy, without regard to the student's socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or other factors beyond that student's control. This creates a sense of empowerment for students because their place in the school's social status system is completely within their ability to help determine.

Want to learn more about Fork Union Military Academy?

I hope that you will find the military system employed at schools like Fork Union Military Academy to be intriguing and something you'd like to learn more about. I encourage you to surf through our website and learn more about Fork Union Military Academy!

 

 

Dan Thompson works at Fork Union Military Academy in strategic communications and marketing.Dan Thompson has been with Fork Union Military Academy since 2004, specializing in strategic communications and marketing. He enjoys sharing the success stories of the school and its cadets.
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