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What Happens at a Military Ball?

Tradition Meets Glamour at a Military Ball — Here's What It's Like to Attend One

Image Sources: Getty / Chaloner Woods, Caitlin Bell

The Army has a rule or regulation for everything — not a big surprise there! Many of these rules and traditions are hundreds of years old (there is even a book called Service Etiquette that spouses can buy to learn these traditions). There are many formal functions service members and their spouses attend, but by far the most fun function is the military ball.

These balls are a way to bring everyone together for a bit of (structured) fun. There is a precise formula for how the balls run, and once you've been to a couple, you know it by heart. The best thing about the ball is that anyone in the battalion can come, and the service members are allowed to bring one guest. This rule can be bent a little if someone wants to bring their parents.

I have had the great honor of attending several military balls in the past. While all of these past balls were unique in their own way, there is nothing like an ROTC ball. The Reserve Officer Training Corp is a program that was created in 1916, and it trains college students how to be future leaders in life and in the military. Currently, my husband is an assistant professor of military science at the University of New Mexico. Being back on a college campus has been fun for both of us, and the cadets in charge of the ball this year did a phenomenal job.

Cocktail Hour

There is always a social hour or cocktail hour before the formal portion of the ball begins. This is fun because not only will you see the many different types of formal uniforms the service members wear, but you'll also see what all the spouses and significant others have chosen to wear.

LTC McKaig and LTC Erik Sevigny USA Retired / Caitlin BellLTC McKaig and LTC Erik Sevigny USA Retired.

As an active duty member, there are several different formal uniforms to choose from. The ones above are called "mess dress." These are the most formal uniforms a service member can wear. Bonus for the ladies: they get to wear a long skirt instead of the usual knee-length skirt.

CPT and Mrs. BellCPT and Mrs. Bell

If the service member does not have a mess-dress uniform, they will wear their Army service uniform. With the ASU, the service member wears a bow tie — ask me how many times I watched my husband practice his bow tie . . . (it was a lot). It is customary for the female spouse of a service member to wear a floor-length gown to these events. The male spouse of a service member will wear a black tie with a formal suit. It is customary for males to wear a dark-colored suit, but that's not always the case these days. A lot of spouses will treat balls like their red carpet, and why not? Everyone loves to dress up sometimes!

Cadet Jablonski and Guest / Caitlin BellCadet Jablonski and guest.

The cadets for ROTC wear a version of what their uniforms will look like after they commission. Usually, female soldiers and cadets will wear a skirt with their ASU, but some do opt to wear pants. The Army has made strides toward equality for all, so our LGBTQ+ community feels more at home at the balls now. To me, this is the most amazing thing to see change — a change for the better, and a change toward full inclusion.

Receiving Line and Dinner

As cocktail hour winds down, the formal portion of the evening will begin. Everyone walks through a receiving line and shakes hands with the Commander and the honored guests. (This year, the president of the university came to our ball!) It is tradition that the guest of the service member is introduced first and shakes hands with the receiving line ahead of the service member. After shaking hands, guests are to find their tables and wait.

UNM ROTC Color GuardUNM Color Guard

The color guard will come out and post the colors, and the national anthem will be sung. This is all fairly routine; anyone who has gone to a baseball game has seen that. What is very moving is the "missing man table," and it's not something I even knew about before I went to my first ball. Each component stands for something unique, and every detail symbolizes the profound losses our service members deal with.

The Missing Man TableThe "missing man" table.

The chaplain will say the prayer, and then everyone can eat! After dinner, the guest speaker will get on stage. This year, our ball had a professor of American literary studies from the University of New Mexico speak. The guest speakers are always people who have true passion for life, and they always share truly insightful wisdom. I have yet to sit through a guest speaker I didn't thoroughly enjoy; it is endlessly fascinating to hear other people's reveries about their lives.

After the guest speaker has finished, the color guard comes back for the flags, everyone sings the Army song, and the chaplain says one more prayer. Then the formal portion is over and the dancing begins. I am usually done with my high heels at this point in the evening, so I abandon them somewhere safe. This is also the part of the night when I finally drink a glass of wine without worrying I'm going to say something horrifying.

It is through the pomp and circumstance of formal events like the ball that you get to witness firsthand how beautiful it is to keep traditions alive. The Army, as well as the other branches of the military, is ensuring these hundreds of years of traditions are not left in the past. Each branch has a hand in making sure the traditions evolve with the ever-changing faces of the service members. It is humbling to witness some of the events that take place when you are part of the military community. Not all events require a ballgown, but all events require a quiet dedication to duty. And not for the first time, I am proud to say our family is Army strong.

Image Source: Caitlin Bell
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