Commissioned Officers in the United States Navy are responsible for the effective and efficient management of personnel, ships, aircraft, and weapons systems. These highly educated leaders have successfully completed extensive specialized training enabling them to execute the mission of the Navy.
Given the broad scope of service and requirement for officers of the highest caliber, there are a variety of paths to becoming a commissioned officer in the United States Navy. The majority of incoming officers are college graduates, coming from Reserve Officer Training Programs (ROTC) or other Officer Training programs, including officer programs for enlisted sailors. Graduates coming from the United States Naval Academy (USNA) account for less than one-fifth of incoming officers.
Regardless of the path these brave young men and women have taken, the Commissioning Ceremony is the formal event marking the transition from trainee, cadet, or Midshipman to Commissioned Officer in the United States military. All officers will take the Oath of Office swearing to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the pinning on of rank. Some larger ceremonies will include a Color Guard, but there is one time-honored tradition each new officer looks forward to with great planning and anticipation, the Silver Dollar Salute.
While the exact origin is unknown, the tradition of the first salute is generally believed to stem from British military practices in Colonial America. It was customary for new officers to be assigned a knowledgeable advisor from the enlisted ranks. It was the responsibility of the enlisted member to help quickly get the new officer up to speed with the military practices, customs, and history so the officer could be an effective leader. In gratitude for the valuable assistance the enlisted service member had given, he was rewarded with a portion of the newly commissioned officer’s pay, which at the time amounted to $1 a month.
The tradition of giving a dollar to an enlisted service member remains. Despite the decline in the value of a dollar since Colonial America, a dollar coin is used to pay tribute to this historic custom. Similar to the alleged origin of the tradition, newly commissioned officers reward an enlisted service member who has provided them with indispensable support and assistance during their officer training period. The main difference today is when the dollar is presented.
The honor as we know it today has been incorporated into the very first salute of an officer’s military career. The first salute is not one left to chance, but a planned aspect of the commissioning ceremony. The newly pinned officer will receive their first salute from the enlisted service member they have chosen to thank with this tradition. Upon returning the salute, the officer, with much gratitude, presents the enlisted member with a silver dollar coin and a handshake.
The Silver Dollar Salute is a tradition that symbolically acknowledges a Commissioned Officer’s new position, rank, and the respect afforded to such status. There are few restrictions regarding who may be chosen for the Silver Dollar Salute, other than the individual must have served in the enlisted ranks, however most officers do keep with tradition and choose the enlisted member who had the greatest impact in their training.
Given the significance of the event for both parties, great consideration is put into the particular silver dollar coin selected. Commemorative coins are commercially minted specifically for the purpose of the first salute, but many adhere to the tradition of using U.S. currency. Silver dollars minted in 1964 and earlier all contain a high silver percentage. The Eisenhower Silver Dollars minted in the 1970s only contain silver in the non-circulated “proof” coins, and the Susan B. Anthony dollar coins contain no silver at all.