By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WEST POINT, N.Y., May 23, 2015 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reversed the first-salute tradition for new officers during the Class of 2015’s U.S. Military Academy commencement here today.
Military tradition is that newly commissioned officers give a dollar to the noncommissioned officers who render them their first salute. But today, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey gave each of the 994 new second lieutenants an autographed dollar bill to signify his trust in them.
It was a fitting tribute from one end of “the Long Gray Line” to the other. Dempsey, the military’s highest-ranking officer, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1974. He retires later.
According to a Defense Department handbook titled “The Armed Forces Officer,” the first-salute tradition goes back to the founding of the U.S. Army during the Revolutionary War. At that time, officers paid NCOs to mentor them as they learned the profession of a soldier.
Symbolic Passing of the Torch
Giving an NCO a dollar for the first salute is a throwback to that tradition. It generally is given to an NCO who influenced and prepared an officer for command. It is a symbolic passing of the torch by the NCO, who transitions from mentor to subordinate. Another thread in the tradition says new officers “buy” their first salute and then earn all others through their duty performance.
The first salute “is symbolic of the respect and trust that exist between leader and led within our profession,” Dempsey said. “In return, you will give the individual who salutes you a dollar, indicating that they can count on you to earn their trust, not just today, but every day throughout your career.”
The Chairman’s First Salute
Dempsey’s first salute 41 years ago was from Army Master Sgt. Bernie Henderson, an NCO in the Military Academy’s department of military instruction. Dempsey had met him during training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and throughout his cadet career, the sergeant was someone he could turn to when he had questions about how to relate to the NCO Corps.
“He took my first salute,” the general told the graduates. “I signed a dollar bill and handed it to him. We went our separate ways.”
About a year ago, Dempsey said, he got a package in the mail containing a framed dollar bill that he had signed and a note that read, “Dear General Dempsey, I told you I would return this to you when you made general. Sorry it took me so long to send it back to you. Sincerely, Bernie Henderson.”
“That was his way of letting me know I had earned his trust,” the general said. “Among the many awards and citations I’ve received throughout my career, it is one of my most treasured possessions.”
One Important Message: Trust
Dempsey told the graduates that he wanted to deliver one important message to them: “We trust you.”
“We trust you to win our nation’s wars, to be leaders of character and competence and consequence,” he said. “We trust you to leave our profession better than you found it.
“As I shake your hand on this stage today,” he continued, “I’ll give you each a dollar bill that I’ve signed. In the years ahead, as you confront the challenges ahead, I hope you remember not who gave it to you, but what it means.”