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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
In the new book I'm working on I have an exchange between two military officers, a captain and a colonel, and I'm not entirely sure how they would address each other. Am I correct in assuming that the colonel refers to the captain as captain,and the captain addresses the colonel as sir, or alternatively as colonel especially when greeting?

While on the subject I might as well ask how the same exchange might sound between lower ranks such as a private and a sergeant, does it work the same way?

It's a rather minor detail in the book but I'd prefer to get it right if I can and know there's a number of people who have served around here. I've been in the military in my own country but things don't always work the same way and a Google search didn't really provide a clear answer so I thought I'd stop by here to ask.

Thanks in advance.
 

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(Disclaimer: I served in the USAF, 1990-94. My experiences may be considerably different than other folks)

First off, folks in the service are people. Meaning they act how they act. Some may follow a protocol others may not.

secondly, are your characters friends? Do they serve in the same unit? Are they in the field? What branch are they in? USAF folks always seemed more laid back to me while Marines fell at the other end of the spectrum.

Yes, Protocol would be for the lower ranking person to address a superior officer as Sir. Or by their rank. NCOs (noncommissioned officers, Sgts) may be called Sgt but generally it's a more respectful conversation without titles.

all thus varies though. A Colonel and his Sgt Major/First Sgt/etc might not use titles or sirs when alone talking. Young newbie Lts or enlisted might go all overboard with formality. A special unit may not use any titular considerations in conversation as in the field they dont want to reveal to observers who the boss is (saluting a superior in combat zone could mark someone as a target for an enemy sniper).

I'd say just be consistent with your characters' personality and try and get a vet to review it when you're done.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Thanks a lot.

I guess I should've specified that I'm writing futuristic Sci-Fi so it doesn't have to be 100% realistic as to how it compares to the real world I just wanted the exchange to make sense. I'm using Army ranks just to keep some sort of consistency although I'm not entirely sure what branch of the military it might actually be as spaceflight and whatnot is involved and it doesn't take place on Earth.
 

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In the Army, a Colonel outranks a Captain. A Captain is an O3, a Colonel is an O6 which is the equivalent of a Captain in the Navy and other forces (O6).

Then you have quirks in some forces, for example in the Navy, a man or woman who is an O5 is a Commander. They may have a vessel under their command, at which point it is customary to call them Captain, not Commander, even though a Captain is an O6 and a Commander is an O5. I hated the captain of our last boat, I made SURE to call him Commander Last Name every chance I got!

 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Elizabeth Ann West said:
In the Army, a Colonel outranks a Captain. A Captain is an O3, a Colonel is an O6 which is the equivalent of a Captain in the Navy and other forces (O6).

Then you have quirks in some forces, for example in the Navy, a man or woman who is an O5 is a Commander. They may have a vessel under their command, at which point it is customary to call them Captain, not Commander, even though a Captain is an O6 and a Commander is an O5. I hated the captain of our last boat, I made SURE to call him Commander Last Name every chance I got!
That last part gave me a good laugh, nothing like slighting someone by calling them by their proper rank.

Thanks for the elaboration on the difference between Captain in the Navy and the Army.
 

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Formalities, customs, and courtesies vary branch to branch, as has been pointed out. In the Corps, it's a bit tighter, but once off duty and off base, lower ranked enlisted men and junior NCOs (non-commissioned officer, E-4 and up) do fraternize and are friends. On duty, the NCO is called by his rank, but never sir. It's the same with officer ranks. On duty, the lower rank would address his superior as Sir, or his rank.One mistake a see a lot of writers make, is in not capitalizing the rank when used together with the name. "The captain's name is Captain Smith." If they were friends and behind closed doors, they might be less formal, both enlisted and officer of close rank would drop formalities and use first names if they knew one another well. Right up until the superior tells the subordinate what to do. "Get me a cup of coffee when you leave the office, Mike." Then it's "Yes, Sir." Or in the Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, "Aye aye, sir." It's not always reciprocal. A Colonel has been around a while, usually twenty years or more. He's older and will sometimes speak to a junior officer or enlisted by their first name, sort of as a father figure might. A Colonel in his office might call to his adjutant in the outer office, "Hey Mike, is there any coffee left?" The adjutant would reply, "Yes, sir" then get up, get the coffee pot and carry it to the Colonel. Woe be the young ensign or second lieutenant that tries to intimidate or demand respect from a salty old master chief or sergeant major. Some beasts you just don't poke with a stick.

Charles C. Bailey said:
That last part gave me a good laugh, nothing like slighting someone by calling them by their proper rank.

Thanks for the elaboration on the difference between Captain in the Navy and the Army.
Not just Navy. The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps' officer rank structures are the same. The Navy and Coast Guard's are the same. And few enlisted ranks of the same pay grade, have the same rank in all of them. An E-3 in the Army is a PFC (private first class) and in the Marine Corps a PFC is an E-2. An E-3 in the Corps is a lance corporal. In the Navy, a seaman. In the Air Force, an airman first class. And in the Coast Guard, a seaman.
 

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In the U.S. Army of the 1980s, it went like this:

It depends on the situation, and the relationship between the two officers.

When I wore Mother Green's uniform, I would always assume formality, addressing a superior by rank (Colonel), or sir.

If the higher ranking officer initiates informality, then I might do the same in return and use first name only.

A couple of notes:

This would never be done in front of others, regardless of history. My brother and I happened to serve in the same unit for a short time. He outranked me. In front of other troopers, we never went casual.

This would rarely occur if there was more than one rank separating the two. A captain would almost never go casual with a colonel. To much separation.

Lieutenants are the privates of the officer corp, the bottom rung of the ladder. They would almost never be given this privilege or recognition. The likelihood would increase as you go up the pay scale, so colonel to general, or within the general staff (there are four ranks of general). 

The most likely circumstances where this would occur is when the conversation has nothing to do with matters of the unit, military, or service. If two officers are, say, carpooling, and one is considering purchasing a new set of golf clubs, they might fall into "friendly" level of address.

Hope this helps.



 

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Charles C. Bailey said:
Thanks a lot.

I guess I should've specified that I'm writing futuristic Sci-Fi so it doesn't have to be 100% realistic as to how it compares to the real world I just wanted the exchange to make sense. I'm using Army ranks just to keep some sort of consistency although I'm not entirely sure what branch of the military it might actually be as spaceflight and whatnot is involved and it doesn't take place on Earth.
This being the case then they will almost certainly be using Naval not Army Ranks, so the ships crew would follow the structure of a naval vessel ( They are space ships after all) and combat troops would be Marines, that is the general convention since NASA drew their soace crews from Naval Aviators since it is generally acknowledged landing a fast jet on a carrier gives you the best pilot skills in the business.

I would stick with the Naval convention, amazon has a space marines category after all and I don't remember any sci-fi military outfit that didn't use naval conventions, right down to the historical wooden ship's wheel in Captain Kirk's office on board the Enterprise.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
B&H said:
This being the case then they will almost certainly be using Naval not Army Ranks, so the ships crew would follow the structure of a naval vessel ( They are space ships after all) and combat troops would be Marines, that is the general convention since NASA drew their soace crews from Naval Aviators since it is generally acknowledged landing a fast jet on a carrier gives you the best pilot skills in the business.

I would stick with the Naval convention, amazon has a space marines category after all and I don't remember any sci-fi military outfit that didn't use naval conventions, right down to the historical wooden ship's wheel in Captain Kirk's office on board the Enterprise.
I'm still at the beginning of the story so it shouldn't be too difficult to revise. The reason I picked the army was because I'm most familiar with those ranks and they're very much a ground based force in the story that just has to use ships to travel between planets but now that you mention it most books/movies seem to have space marines and I do think it makes more sense after all.

A lot of valuable input so far, thanks again.
 

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I will offer my perspective as a reader. I found Mr. Stinnett's post the most helpful (not surprised, it usually is!).

I think using "Sir," or rank name in the examples he provided is your best bet. I haven't been in the military, but what I assume is the superior officer would be addressed by "Sir." Generally speaking, don't know who is the higher ranking officer (other than General tops everyone else).

So if you have Captain and Colonel, I would have to think back to the A-Team (80's) to figure out Colonel is the higher rank.
If you have Captain and Lt. and Sgt. I have no idea which is a higher rank. For purposes of dialogue, use "Sir" to help out an ignorant reader like myself.

My husband wasn't in the military but his father, stepfather and all of his older brothers were, so he knows and understands the ranking. Me, I know the A-Team and that's enough for me :)
 

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As it was mentioned earlier, you use "Sir/Maam" when addressing an officer of a higher rank, but talking down to the lower rank is either with their rank or by their last name (you almost never address someone in the military by first name).  NCO (non-commissioned officers) in the Navy is usually considered as an officer. Enlisted personnel on the other hand in the same branch are never addressed with "Sir".  The same rule goes with saluting, you salute/greet to the highest rank officer only.  Among friends formality is usually dropped right away but this is also behind closed doors too.  Additionally, groups within themselves, may address each other by their nicknames (a person can have multiple nicknames, I had 3:"Shakes", "Too-Tall", "Stricker") too.

Background:  I am former US Navy, enlisted for 6 years, stationed on USS Carl Vinson.
 

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My USAF experience (2Lt - 1Lt - Capt):

Flying squadron: Everybody called me by my last name until they thought I had 'proved' myself. Then they called me be my first name. I called my section leader by his rank only until he invited me to call him by his first name. The line crew (enlisted) always called me by my rank. Everybody called the squadron CO and the wing CO by rank. Contrary to Top Gun, nobody called anybody by call signs on the ground.

Engineering group: Everybody called me by my first name, including the CO. My division chief called everyone by first name except Chief Master Sergeant Willis. Everyone, including the CO, called him Chief. I called my division chief and my CO colonel. I was smart enough to call senior enlisted Chief and Sergeant. In fact, I called anybody with more than 3 stripes sergeant.

In brief, the level of formality differences not only from service to service but from unit to unit.

Your writing:
The common form in sf is to use naval ranks on ships and marine ranks for grunts. How formal do you want to be? My experience was that the better units were more informal once I was accepted; that is, mere assignment to a unit was not enough; membership had to be earned. (See the movie The Big Red One.)

Rank structures change with time, so you do not have to adhere to today's ranks. For example, the Navy used to have a one-star rank called commodore. Congress abolished the rank when they confirmed Dewey's promotion. (They did not like Dewey and promoted him in a left-handed fashion by eliminating the one-star rank and promoting all one-stars to two-stars.) The Navy tried to bring back the one-star rank with Commodore Admiral, but I believe they abandoned that. Which is why the Navy has Rear Admiral (lower grade) and Rear Admiral (upper grade).

In its early days, the Navy included the ranks of third lieutenant and midshipman. The ranks of lieutenant commander and commander did not exist. Commodore was a courtesy title given to the senior captain commanding a fleet; for example, Preble in the Barbary War or Suffren in the American War of Independence.

With the exception of the rank of sergeant, the ranks of enlisted personnel have changed the most. They also vary the most from nation to nation.

In short, write what you want, but be aware of the boundaries. Broadly speaking, subordinates will show respect to superiors. Even if they hate or despise the man, they will respect the rank. Only a fool with a commission will lord his rank over an experienced non-com.

I recall reading a story by Jerry Pournelle in which a subordinate (major) called his CO (colonel) by his given name during a council (other officers present). It struck me so much that I still remember it verbatim. I would never have done that with Colonel Siemenski, and I would have given my life for the man had he asked it.

Like I said, formality differs from unit to unit.
 

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Okay, my two cents.  I joined the Army in 1981, and I recently served in Afghanistan.  I'm currently a Sergeant First Class (Reserves).  Captains always call Colonels, Sir, or Colonel (insert last name here).  The Colonel would call him Captain (insert last name here).  Depending on the relationship, the Colonel might call the Captain by his first name, but only if they are alone, or maybe, depending on the circumstances, in front of one or two other officers.  Still, if the Colonel is calling him by his first name, the Captain would still call him Sir.  They would never use first names in front of enlisted.  This would also be done for a Sergeant Major, if the Colonel and the Sergeant Major were alone.  If there were others present, to include other officers, the Colonel and Sergeant Major would only use ranks, and the Sergeant Major would call the officer Sir, or Colonel (insert last name here).
Among enlisted, below the rank of sergeant, they are always called by their rank, rank plus last name, or, if it is an emergency, or the sergeant addressing them is pissed, then the last name would be used.  In the Army, sergeants are called sergeant all the way from sergeant, through staff sergeant, sergeant first class, and master sergeant.  First Sergeant is always called First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major is always called Sergeant Major.  In the Marine Corps, full ranks are always used, except for Gunnery Sergeant, and they can be called Gunny.  In a social situation, ranks can be ignored, but usually the ranks doing this are within three ranks of each other, though First Sergeant is always called First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major is always called Sergeant Major by a lower rank.  E4 and below (corporal, specialist, private first class, and private) always call sergeants, sergeant.
I probably forgot a few things.  I hope this helps.
Mark H.
 

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antares said:
Thought about it. Suggest you write up the scene and run it past a beta reader with the pertinent military experience.
/\/\/\ This.

Use your regular core group of beta readers for all your books, but seek out people with particular knowledge that you lack to beta read also. In Fallen Pride, there is a good bit of dialogue between a private pilot and air traffic control in several cities. I wanted it to sound real, but I'm not a pilot. I've flown in private planes and have taken the controls many times, but that's not quite the same. Two of my beta readers for that book were private pilots and another beta was an air traffic controller.
 

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I've been in the Army 16 years--15 years as an aviator and 1 year as an analyst. If an officer outranks you, call them sir or ma'am. If you outrank an officer, call them by their first name. This is how a typical conversation would go between a captain and a colonel:

Captain: "Good morning, sir."

Colonel: "Morning, Joe. You ready for the brief this afternoon?"

Captain: "Yes, sir."

Colonel: "Good. I'm looking forward to it."

The more someone out ranks you by, the less you drop sirs. If it's not self-evident, "dropping" sirs means not appending a "sir" to everything you say. If I was a captain talking to a major, I might throw in a sir every third or fourth time I spoke. If I was briefing a general officer, I'd almost always append a sir, depending on how familiar I was with the individual.
 

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I was in the USAF a long, long time ago, and my recollection is that lower ranks are always aware and respectful of those senior to themselves, officers or not. In private, close personnel might be more friendly, but when in the presence of lower ranks, proper decorum held.

My last job, I was a "buck sergeant" (a rank that's no longer used) and later a regular sergeant, under the command of a staff sergeant. We were friends, but on the job he was Sergeant X, and so was I. ;) I once had to dress down another friend of his wife's, an airman, who addressed him with too much familiarity while at work. Officers overheard, and gave me (the ranking enlisted present) "the eye".

We were a fairly casual group, very friendly and not really stuffy about rank, but we had officers in all the time, and we had to be careful to behave according to the rules so we didn't get on anybody's wrong side.

In another incident, I had to remind a group of airmen about using proper dress when they were in my area (we had a big sign, but they blew past it). They had come in with their shirts open, showing their undershirts. This was not regulation. They thought it was funny, and hollered "yes, ma'am!", to which I replied without thinking that they were to address me properly and with due respect, because I was not an officer.

Imagine my embarrassment when I turned back to my customers to see a colonel trying not to laugh at me.  :eek:
 

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If it's a Navy Captain and a Colonel in any other service, they're equal in rank. So . . . do make sure you make that clear.

The Hubs is retired Navy and we were stationed on various Navy bases over the years. When there were AF or Army or MC also stationed on the base, the Captains in those services worked out pretty quickly that they could often get things done more quickly if they neglected to mention what service they were in and just said, "This is Captain Whosywhats and I need the following.  . ." ;)

Of course, in-processing of the Navy personnel in the base services billets included the directive to inquire as to the requester's service and command. :D
 
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