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How to Plan a Meaningful Military Retirement Ceremony

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How to Plan a Meaningful Military Retirement Ceremony

With 20 years in the service, you and your spouse have likely been to numerous military ceremonies. A military retirement ceremony is different. This one marks the end of a long career in a difficult occupation and marks your transition into a completely different civilian life. The significance of the occasion can make it difficult to know how to proceed as a spouse. What can we expect from the ceremony and what is going to be expected of us? If your spouse has decided to have a formal ceremony, here is a general rundown of what to expect.

What Comes Standard in a Military Retirement Ceremony?

This is a question to ask your spouse. There are elements of a military retirement ceremony that are fairly standard—branch and installation specifics excluded. Typically awards are presented, something read aloud, and a speech or two. Beyond that, a traditional ceremony will have an invocation, parade of colors, and playing of applicable anthems. Kind of like a change of command ceremony, there are just some things expected.

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These are the bones of the ceremony, but you may want to make it more meaningful by making some additions. The commanding officer may also limit what the command is willing to do. Operational needs still take priority, so sometimes a conference room presentation in the middle of the afternoon is all you get. (But we think there should still be cake!)

Planning A Meaningful Retirement Ceremony Eastern Sky Photography
military retirement ceremony

Ways to Make Their Military Retirement Ceremony “Extra”

Isn’t that what the kids say? Make it extra?

There are numerous poems, readings, and symbolic rituals that perfectly capture what a huge accomplishment this is. The “Old Glory” presentation is a common one where service members line up in order of ascending rank with the retiring member being the last. The flag is then passed from lowest ranking on up while the poem is read. It’s a visual representation of progressing through a military career and the honor that it holds.

Each service has its icons. In the Marine Corps, every person who enlisted and went through boot camp knows about and has stood on the yellow footprints. If your service member started out enlisted (regardless of their rank now), consider having some yellow footprints printed out and put on the floor so the service member can end his or her service the same way it started.

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It’s their retirement ceremony, so as long as the addition isn’t inappropriate, absurd, or logistically impossible, your service member can probably request it. Some people even choose to jump out of planes and land at the beginning of their ceremony. Give your spouse some ideas that relate to what they did in the service. There are really a lot of options here.

What are a Spouses Duties at a Military Retirement Ceremony?

As a spouse, your role can be as involved or as limited as you want. Your main responsibility will be to serve as a liaison to the command. You know your spouse better than they do, so help them out when they ask for gift recommendations. Beyond that, your spouse will coordinate with the command to make arrangements for the ceremony itself.

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You don’t need to worry about the logistics of flags or whether the band will be there. On the day of, your responsibilities will likely including showing up, supporting your service member, and corralling family members. Yes, you absolutely served alongside your spouse, but the retirement ceremony is a military one and not actually for you (if you’re also retiring from the military, you’ll get your own ceremony and will have much more say in that one). Your role here is to suggest and support, not to coordinate and control.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t help make it more special for your spouse with some meaningful details. Most people have special mentors or colleagues in their lives that they would love to see again. Their recruiter, their boot camp buddy, their favorite commanding officer. Sneakily ask your spouse about those people and see if you can get them to attend the ceremony.

Planning A Meaningful Retirement Ceremony Eastern Sky Photography
military retirement ceremony

Make it Memorable

Consider putting together a video or slideshow of pictures and well wishes from the past 20 years, or from people who were not able to attend. This can play during the ceremony or during the reception. If a slideshow isn’t your thing, pull together some scrapbooks or individual images to put on a table at the reception.

Another thing you can do to make their retirement ceremony more enjoyable is to hire professionals. This is an event you’ll want to remember, so hire a photographer and enjoy being in the moment. Depending on how you like to party, you may want to hire a caterer, take the party to a restaurant, or have someone else coordinate the post-ceremony time when people can sit around and share stories.

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A very important note: Some service members choose not to have a retirement ceremony at all. For many, the recognition is uncomfortable or their peers are not local. We move so often, it’s likely that the friends they made over a 20+ year career are not in the service anymore or are living in different states.

As much as we want to shower our spouses with the recognition they so often deserve, this one is on them. We need to be okay with whatever decision they make and support that decision as well as we can. The retirement ceremony can give the whole family closure, but if your spouse doesn’t want it, or chooses to do it somewhere you can’t go (like underwater), find another way for your family to celebrate.


Retiring from the military is a huge transition and one that is stressful enough without an elaborate retirement ceremony. Don’t overthink this part too much. Add a personal touch or two, but don’t go crazy trying to make it perfect. Just reflect on the good times and the growth, and be present that day.

WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out 5 Meaningful Military Retirement Gifts

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military retirement ceremony

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Photo Credit: Eastern Sky Photography NC

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