Medical Officer's Guide to the Navy

Navy Customs and Traditions


Ever walk into a senior service member's office and notice some strangely ornate certificates adorning the walls?  Well, the navy has many "unofficial" certificates it awards for traditional (old navy) accomplishments.  These certificates usually involve some sort of ceremony.  For example, when crossing the equator for the first time, you will go from being a lowly pollywog to an honorable shellback!  Follow this link to learn more about crossing the equator and many other unofficial certificates you may have the opportunity to earn.


First Salute Tradition: 

The first salute is a long standing 19th century tradition that requires newly commissioned officers to give a silver dollar to the recipient of their firs salute.  Navy tradition state that you have to buy your first salute and then earn every salute thereafter through you performance by gaining the respect of your subordinates.  Today, naval officers 'paying' for their first salute is considered a way to show respect for those superior enlisted personnel who helped the officer achieve commissioned status.

Navy Rank Structure

The enlisted ranking structure is made of rates and ratings.  Both terms sound interchangeable; however, they are actually very different.  In fact, they can be quite confusing at first.  Rate is an individual’s pay grade (E-1 through E-9) and rating is their occupational specialty.


When first graduating from boot camp, the new sailors are considered to be non-rates (without specialties).  Some of these new sailors go from boot camp to career field school (C School) where they receive specialty training.  Others report directly to their first duty station.


The non-rates are further subdivided by general career field.  Their insignia are diagonal stripes of different colors:  (1) deck, administration, and medical (white); (2) engineering and hull (red); (3) aviation (green); (4) construction (blue).   Non-rated sailors have plenty of general work to do on a ship- routine maintenance, cleaning, etc.  They are also assigned to departments for on the job training (OJT) in a area where they have an interest.  The process of receiving OJT is called 'striking'.


Some specialties are strictly learned through OJT, others require C School.  Some sailors leave their duty stations for C School after completing an application process.


Here is a chart of pay grades (Rates) with general insignia.  The insignia is worn on the left sleeve with the eagle facing to the right:



This table is from the website Navy Office of Information (ChInfo)A sailor's professional specialty mark (or rating) is represented on the sleeve insignia above the stripes and below the eagle.  In the history of the navy, there have been over 100 different ratings.  Currently, there are just over 60.  The number of ratings have varied throughout the years as technology changed, thereby, paving the way for new specialties and eliminating the need for others.


The first attempt at insignia differentiated enlisted specialties appeared in 1841.  There were a total of 15 ratings at that time.  However, the system employed did not have specific enough markings.  In 1866, the system was changed to include 8 specialty marks.  Depending on where they were worn, a total of 13 ratings could be identified.  Today, each rating has its own distinct marking.  Follow this link to a page which contains links to the current rating markings and their associated abbreviations (e.g. Hospital Corpsman is written HM).


As an officer, your specialty, be it a physician or a pilot, is assigned a number.  This number is called a designator.  Enlisted personnel also have a number associated with their specialties.  It is called their Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC).  Click Here for a link to a BUMED website which lists all NECs, basic job descriptions, and job requirements.


Blue and Navy were both used as resources for this chapter.  Follow these links for more information. 

Officer Ranks


The titles of officer ranks in the navy are the same as those of the US Coast Guard, but different from those of the Army, Air Force, and Marines:



The rank of Fleet Admiral has been reserved for war time use only. The last Fleet Admirals were in World War II. Fleet Admirals during that war were Chester W. Nimitz, William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, and William F. Halsey. 


There is another officer rank to become familiar with.  It is the warrant officer.  They are officers who possess special technical knowledge and skills who have ascended from the enlisted ranks.  They wear insignia similar to staff officers on the sleeves of their Service Dress Blues and on their shoulder boards. 

* The grade of Warrant Officer (W-1) is no longer in use. W-5 was established in the Navy in 2002.  Learn more about the history of warrant officers.


Officer Specialties


There are two general categories of officers- line and staff.  Essentially, line officers work up through the ranks and ultimately take command of ships, air craft squadrons, or submarines.  Staff officers work in medicine, supply, logistics, religious services, etc.  They progress through the same ranks as their line counterparts; however, they do not command ships at sea.


In the khaki and working blue uniforms, line officers where the same collar devices on both sides.  Whereas, staff officers wear their rank on the RIGHT collar and specific service insignia on the left.  In whites line officers wear stars on the shoulder boards.  In service dress blue uniforms, they wear stars above the stripes on their sleeves.  Staff officers where service insignia on their shoulder boards in whites and over their stripes in service dress blues.