Military Matters: Addressing a retired officer

by epi on November 12, 2012

Q: How do you address a letter to someone who has retired from being a captain in the army?  I want to show respect for the rank she attained but don’t know if it’s appropriate to acknowledge it after her retirement.

A: You should continue using her title whenever you address a letter to her.  Members of the regular armed services retain their titles, as do reserve officers who officially retire after a number of years.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rusty Shackleford November 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I would make sure this person is actually a retiree. There is a difference between those who are actually retired after 20 or more years of service, and those who merely are honorably discharged. The rank of Captain is generally held between years 4-11 of a commissioned officers’ career. Also, generally rank is only retained by active or reserve officer’s if they received a regular commission, which is rare for a Captain. A reserve officer does not retain their rank after retirement unless they received a regular commission. Therefore, unless this person “retired” from active commissioned service, using their rank is not appropriate.
Context is also very important to consider. If this officer has transitioned from military service to private industry, particularly an industry with an eye toward doing business with the government, and your contact is in that capacity, the use of military rank and title is quite possibly illegal. The purpose of this rule is to prevent former officers from using their contacts and rank to get an unfair advantage bidding for government contracts. At the Pentagon this rule is strictly enforced. Retired Generals who work in private industry are always formally referred to as “Mr” or “Ms.” Those who return in a military or social capacity may still be called “General”


Kathy Swanson April 3, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Double check this answer; I think it should be: Cpt. Name, USA, Ret.


Captain Daniel Bell May 23, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Veterans who have served honorably during war are entitled BY LAW, 10 USC 772(e) to BEAR THE TITLE of the highest rank held during wartime. It has become a pervasive misconception among etiquette advisors that only retired personnel retain their rank (title). Perhaps this is due to the fact that the military services issue regulations governing the use of title by retired personnel, since retired personnel still are obligated to abide by regulations, but has no authority over honorably discharged veterans. Yet the US Congress has, in the law cited above, granted to honorable wartime veterans the right to bear the title of the highest grade held in wartime, as well as to wear the uniform on certain occasions.
It may be the case that many persons confuse ‘rank’ with ‘title’. Retired personnel are placed on a retired list and do in fact nominally hold rank in the hierarchy of the military, whereas veterans do not enter upon any list of ranking. But the title for veterans, as noted above, remains.
I have taken issue with the advice proffered by the Post organization on this subject, particularly when it is deemed in ‘poor taste’ for a non-retired person to, in effect, continue to bear the title. My queries as to why they may consider it ‘poor taste’ to exercise a legal right have gone unanswered.
I am an honorably discharged veteran who served during wartime, and I am very proud of that fact. If one insists on denying veterans the title to which they have a legal right, or brand them as ones who exercise ‘poor taste’, I must and do object. I rather think it in poor taste, and arrogant, to discourage honorable veterans from bearing the title(s) that they have earned.
It is the case that “retired” personnel are subject to certain legal restrictions, but one ought to be careful not to confuse the business use of title with the social use of title. Additionally, the title itself is not contingent upon regular, reserve, or national guard service. Honorable wartime veterans may ‘bear the title’ of the highest grade held during wartime, and that is the law.
Captain D. A. Bell, USA (Vet.)


Colonel Sterling D. MacLeod, USA (Ret.) August 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Captain Bell well highlights the fact that honorably discharged veterans of wartime service are authorized by LAW to bear the title they earned during such wartime military service regardless of their component membership: Active, Reserve or National Guard. Well Done!


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