Stacy Pratt
May 29, 2017 11:11 am
Jessica Butler. Photo used with permission.

The first time I was invited to a military ball, my date didn’t warn me about much. “Dress up and come down here” was the only “advice” I got, and I didn’t know any other military wives or girlfriends to ask. (And it was the ’90s. The internet wasn’t what it is today.) But I survived, and went on to marry that soldier, and now he’s taken me to more military balls than I can count.

If you’ve just been invited to your first military ball, I’m here to tell you a little about what to expect.

Military balls have been around for a long time. American military balls take many traditions from the British, but of course, things have changed over the years. The American military ball as we know it today began after the Civil War.

Balls are generally held in commemoration of a unit anniversary or for special occasions, such as return from a deployment. Though military balls have solemn and ceremonial elements, for the most part they are for celebration. So have fun planning your outfit, and get ready to be blown away by how great your date looks in a dress uniform!

1. What to wear.

The ball is a formal occasion, so this is your chance to try out your best red carpet look. If you’d wear it to a prom or the Oscars, it’s probably appropriate for the ball as well, but do keep in mind that balls are a bit more solemn. You will be participating in some ceremony and meeting your date’s bosses (“superiors” in military parlance), so this may not be the time for an extremely revealing dress.

Floor-length gowns are common, but as you can see from the picture of military ball veteran Kaylee Robinson, who wore my favorite dress of the ball I attended this past week (it had pockets!), all lengths and styles are appropriate as long as they are formal. Her advice?

2. Be graceful in the receiving line.

The receiving line at a military ball is different from the one at your aunt’s formal wedding. The people you are shaking hands with are generals (aka, your date’s boss), distinguished guests, and often, the guest speaker. Usually, an officer is at the end of the line to get your name from your date, and he or she will introduce you to the people whose hands you shake.

Sometimes, there is a little conversation, but it usually doesn’t go beyond things like “Nice to meet you,” so don’t stress about having to make small talk. The line moves quickly, and just shaking hands, smiling, and nodding is all you have to do.

3. Yes, you should take the professional photo.

There is always a professional photographer set up at a military ball, much like there is at the prom. (Be aware: Sometimes you have to pre-pay for professional photos.) As you can see in this picture from one of our first balls, you’ll pose like you do at the prom, too.

If your date is your boyfriend or husband, definitely take the picture. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having to explain why you didn’t to your parents and grandparents — especially if they are veterans. Trust me. If your date is a new acquaintance, let him or her decide on the professional photo.

4. Wait…why is everyone turning toward the flag?

Once inside the ballroom, there is usually assigned seating for dinner. After a formal call to dinner and an invocation (generally the kind of prayer where you bow your head, but there are occasionally some words of inspiration), the flags will be brought in with much ceremony by the colorguard. You have probably seen something similar at a graduation, but there is something a little different here.

As the flags proceed across the room, everyone turns his or her body toward them slightly. You do the same. During the playing of the national anthem, soldiers will stand at attention. You can either stand with your hands at your sides or put your hand over your heart as you do when saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Either is acceptable.

5. I’d like to propose, like, seven toasts.

After the flags are posted in their stands, you will be asked to “charge your glasses.” Pour whatever you want to use for toasting into your glass. Different people will stand to propose toasts, and you can find your response written inside the program that is probably beside your dinner plate. You usually begin by toasting the United States, the president, and the Army (or whatever branch is hosting the ball). Next come toasts for specific groups within the hosting organization, and they have slogans that are part of the toast.

The second-to-last will be a toast to “our fallen comrades.” There is no response to this toast. Instead you have a moment of silence, and then you drink. Until recently, the final toast used to be “to the ladies,” with female guests being seated and servicewomen in the strange position of being “ladies,” but not guests at the ball. Now the final toast is “to the guests,” since the military has embraced marriage (and dating) equality, and not all guests are female. (Hurray for that change!)

6. What in the world are you drinking?!

Part of the purpose of the ball is to recall the unit’s history, and the military has found the most… interesting way possible to do that: The punch bowl ceremony. The punch bowl itself is usually a venerable silver one, wheeled out with formality on a cart covered with a white cloth. Servicemembers come forward, alone or in pairs, bearing different types of alcoholic drinks — and occasionally other things, like green tea or coconut milk. They tell the history of the unit by telling what battle or war their particular addition symbolizes, going all the way back to the beginning of the unit, then they pour it in the punch bowl, creating a horrifying concoction called “grog.” You never know what might go in there.

For example, one of my first balls was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who had just gotten back from Iraq. They poured in sand to recall their deeds in Operation Iraqi Freedom. From now on, that unit will always pour in sand to remember what they did there. It would be gross enough if they just stirred up all the types of alcohol and other things and drank it from a glass, but more often than not, they drink it from a boot. Not a new boot. Your date might do this. I’m warning you now. It’s really touching…but it’s really gross!

7. It’s not just a guest speaker, it’s an adventure.

Military balls come with a presentations. Occasionally people are recognized for awards, but often there is just a guest speaker. Sometimes it’s a veteran of the unit, and they are usually the best ones. Because all veterans have different experiences, it’s seldom boring. Every once in a while, though, you’ll get a speaker whose message isn’t scintillating, but sit there and look interested, even if you can’t really hear. Do not, I repeat, do not be on your phone while the speaker is presenting. Surely, I don’t even need to tell you that.

8. Who is this man, and why is my date fangirl/boying all over him?

Speaking of veterans, units often invite them to the ball. I am not from a military family, and I’m not particularly well-versed in military history, so until I attended a ball, I didn’t realize just how much veterans are rock stars to current soldiers. They are.

Be prepared for your date to abandon you to go stand with a group of soldiers in a knot around an elderly man or woman, asking questions, shaking hands, taking pictures, possibly singing songs. It happens. If you’re lucky, your date will bring you along and introduce you, but sometimes they’ll be too starstruck. Don’t be offended if this happens. Someday, we hope, your soldier will be the old veteran getting all the attention.

9. Respect the Memorial Table.

The most difficult part of military life is losing friends to war. Even in our most joyful moments, we remember them. The way we do that at the ball (and several other places) is with the Memorial Table (sometimes called by other names, like Fallen Comrade Table). It will be a small table covered with a white cloth, usually by itself near where the speaker stands, but sometimes in a corner. Its chair will be tilted, and there will be a variety of symbolic items on top which may vary slightly depending on the unit.

The table tradition began during the Vietnam War as a way to remember POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action), but it has evolved to include those who have passed on as well. Move respectfully around this table. Never lean against it, put your drink on it, or even touch it. If you see someone else about to sit down at it or anything, politely let them know what it is.

10. Watch your hair around the medals!

Stacy Pratt (used with permission)

As you can see from the picture, my husband has been in the Army a long time and has done a lot of things. The medals on soldiers’ uniforms symbolize what they have accomplished, and it is fine to ask about them as long as you don’t ask for graphic details. (The ball is not really the time for that.)

Another important thing to know about medals: They are just waiting to destroy your hairdo. It has happened to me twice. Be careful about leaning too close. Otherwise, like me, you’ll find yourself enlisting the aid of another date to disentangle your hair from a Bronze Star when you’re two couples away from shaking hands in the receiving line.

11. How cool do our sisters look in their dress uniforms?

Photo used with permission by the writer

For us non-military women, the ball involves choosing an outfit from the whole wide world of choices. As you’ll see at the ball, our sisters in service also have some choices to make, though theirs are a bit more limited. SSG Rose Bonilla Cancel, shown above, said some people ask why she isn’t wearing a ballgown, but “others are like OMG, you look so beautiful in your uniform! Can I take a picture with you?” When you see female soldiers at the ball, you’ll know why. They look AWESOME.

Until May 8th, 2017, the regulation formal for female soldiers was a uniform with mid-length or long skirt, but now they can wear pants if they prefer. You’ll see all three. SSG Bonilla has a message for new female soldiers coming to their first ball:

12. What to do when you inevitably find yourself alone.

Things get pretty merry at a ball. In my experience, no matter how much your date loves you, no matter what a gentleman or lady he or she is, you are eventually going to find yourself abandoned. After the formal part of the ball, soldiers mingle. They politic. I once looked across the ballroom to see my big, strong infantry platoon sergeant husband memorably singing a song from Wicked with his lieutenant, complete with dance steps. Things happen. Don’t panic.

If you aren’t content sitting alone, most likely, a friendly military wife will come and save you. (Don’t listen to stereotypes about military wives. Most of us are nice.) If we fall down on that job, introduce yourself to someone. You will either find another newbie for commiseration or a veteran of military balls who will convince you to kick off your shoes and come dance with a big group of wives who are used to being abandoned at the ball. Your soldier will eventually remember you and come back, probably when a slow dance starts.

13. What are these magic coins that turn into drinks?

Remember the veterans from #8? Don’t be surprised if one of them comes over and lays a coin in front of your date, who will then proceed to get all agog and go buy him a drink. Or maybe your date, like mine, has a pocketful of fancy coins and can pull them out on another soldier of his era who lays a coin on the table. Then someone will buy him a drink. Is it some kind of game? Not exactly.

There are several stories about how challenge coins came to be, but today, they are given for being part of a unit or for appreciation for a job well done. (Even I have a coin I got for singing the national anthem at a veteran’s event.) There is a hierarchy of coins that I don’t begin to understand, but whoever shows the highest level earns a drink from the other person. The older the veteran, the more likely he or she is to win this contest, usually with great glee.

14. The ball is not a drinking contest…despite what it might look like.

Besides the grog from #6, a military ball always includes a bar. And there are always some people who believe their dress uniform just wouldn’t look as good without a hidden flask. And there is always that soldier from Kentucky who sneaks in a jar of moonshine. I don’t drink, but boy, everyone else sure seems to at a military ball.

Go ahead and imbibe, as long as you’re old enough and have plans for a safe ride home, but the military ball is not the time to get rip-roaring drunk, despite what it might look like. You’ll have more fun if you’re not throwing up on your fancy shoes in the parking lot. And remember that soldiers can get in way more trouble than civilians if they are caught even riding with a drunk driver. Be smart.

15. Dance with who brought ‘ya.

Jessica Butler. Photo used with permission.

I get it. You didn’t dance at prom. You don’t dance at weddings. You don’t dance. But heed the advice of 1st Lt. Valerie Gonzalo, who I met at last week’s ball:

The military ball will have all kinds of music, from hip hop to salsa to country. There’s always some line dancing. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a heroic first sergeant in full dress blues whipping and nae-naeing. The military life will give you plenty of opportunities to stand still and be sad. Dance while you can dance. Even if you just do the prom sway.

16. Standing awkwardly while your soldier gets chewed out…or chews someone out.

So, a military ball is still a military function, and occasionally, your soldier might do something to get on the bad side of his superior. Or your soldier might be the platoon sergeant of a soldier who does something stupid, like pick a drunken fight or disrespect a guest. Leadership responsibilities don’t stop at the ball, so you might witness some of them in action. It’s awkward, but it doesn’t happen very often or last very long, and most of what you’ll hear is a warning about the “smoking” that will ensue on Monday. (“Smoking”= physical exercise used as punishment.)

Usually, the only thing you’ll see is higher-up soldiers grilling younger ones to make sure they have a sober driver to get home. (If your soldier is a squad leader, you may find a few stray soldiers hitching a ride back to the barracks with you.)

17. Seriously, though, have fun.

Jessica Butler attended her first military ball last weekend. She said she was surprised to discover all the military traditions (and grossed out by the grog), but her advice to first-timers is to have fun, above all else:

After all, that’s what the military ball celebrates most of all: The enduring friendships forged by military service. And, you know, grog.

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