The Words We Say – A Veteran’s Reflection on Military Oaths

military oath meaning
The U.S. Army: Army photo by D. Myles Cullen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was 18 years old, I went downtown to my state’s military recruitment center, raised my right hand, and recited the oath of enlistment for the first time. It would be the only time I would recite the words in civilian clothes.

Keep in mind I hadn’t shipped off to Texas for Basic Military Training yet; I was still doing the last of the preliminary paperwork before leaving my parents and entering my adult life as an American Airman.

This Veteran’s Day is the first one since that moment that I will celebrate post-military service. I retired from the Air Force last year after 20 years and eight months. Hence, it is a bit surreal to come up on this special day for veterans without being an active service member but just a veteran.

It is natural for veterans to think back on their service from time to time, and I am no different. So, this Veteran’s Day, I am reflecting on the words everyone who wore the uniform said at least once in our lives and what they mean.

The History Of Oaths

Pledging an oath to military service is not unique to the United States or even modern times. Military oaths have existed since ancient Rome when military members would pledge oaths to specific Generals or campaigns. 

Before we were Americans, the pilgrims who came over in the 1600s pledged oaths, perhaps most notably the Mayflower Compact. For those of you a little rusty on your early American history, the Mayflower Compact was a way to set down some law and order and social construct after the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts instead of their intended location of Northern Virginia.

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There are two main groups of military members; officers and enlisted. Officers take an Oath of Office, and enlisted take an Oath of Enlistment. The first Oaths of Office for American officers were uttered during the time of the Continental Army in 1775. 

New officers of the Continental Army had to name the 13 states and swear to keep them:

“free, independent and sovereign states and declare no allegiance to George the third, King of Britain.”

Furthermore, they had to swear to:

“Defend the United States against King George, his heirs and successors, and his and their abettors, assistants, and adherents.”

They sure did have a flair for alliteration back then. In the first bill in the first session of the first Congress in 1789, military oaths were required in Statute 1, Chapter 1, Titled ‘An Act to Regulate the Time and Manner of Administering Certain Oaths.’

The Oaths

Officers take their oath upon commissioning and each promotion. In addition to proclaiming their name, service, and rank, they swear to:

“…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me, God.”

Enlisted members take their oath upon initial enlistment and each subsequent reenlistment. In addition to stating our names, we swear to:

“…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me, God.”

Both oaths sound very similar but have clear and distinct differences. For example, enlisted, you will notice we swear to obey orders. In contrast, officers who are the ones who generally give said orders have to publicly acknowledge they will do so by discharging their duties without any ulterior motives. 

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The part I’d prefer to focus on is the similarity, that which we support and defend.

Required To Swear, Not Required To Read

Uniformed members swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We do not swear to support and defend the flag, the President, or Congress, for that matter. 

I can’t speak to the officers since I was enlisted, but I can tell you in the 20 years I wore the uniform, I was not once required to read the same document I was swearing my life to.

Don’t worry; I’ve read the Constitution numerous times, but I guarantee you most Americans, including those swearing their lives to support and defend it, haven’t, and that’s a real problem.

My appreciation for words and the poetic flair is why I like that we didn’t swear to the President but to the document that is the basis of who we are and what this country is. I served under two Republican and two Democratic Presidents.

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I have a family member who is very liberal, and while President Donald Trump was in the office, they decided one night to berate me about how I could serve a man like him.

But, of course, he didn’t and couldn’t understand that I didn’t serve any man; my word bound me to the Constitution, not a mere man, regardless of party.

More Than Words

The oath of office and enlistment are not just words, or at least they shouldn’t be. But, much like a vow, the oaths should be viewed as an act of love. When you say these words, you make a promise to the foundation of our country that you will give your whole self to its preservation.

In many ways, this is why so many of us veterans struggle after our time is done. To serve something greater than yourself or any real tangible thing requires you to be focused, disciplined, and all in. 

Suddenly, once you go from active service to veteran status, that feeling of intense focus shared between your brothers and sisters in arms has no place to go, and it can feel like you are lost at sea. These words we say embed into the very fabric of our lives; I’ll be honest, they should.

On this Veteran’s Day, I want to thank all my brothers and sisters, past and present, for their service and for swearing an oath to support and defend our remarkable Constitution. 

Personal image from the author, Kat Anderson.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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