Talking Tradition Thursdays – Retreat and To The Colors

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Every other Thursday I would like to take one small tradition that is normally conducted on a regular basis in or around the Army and discuss it: where it came from, why we do it, what it is, and how the tradition is executed.

I thought it only fitting as my first “Talking Tradition Thursday” to use an incident that happened on one of my very first days as an Army wife. Something I had been warned about, told what to do when it happens, how NOT to be disrespectful, what to look for, and how I would know it was happening. Let’s just say when the time came I blew it. BIG TIME.

I had just returned to Hawaii from getting married in Oklahoma. It was a quick, spur of the moment, need to get Army paperwork rolling, we’ll have a big wedding later, decision. He had a four day pass for the weekend which gave us just enough time to do everything from me flying out there, getting married, changing my social security card, getting all the special power of attorneys I would need to do things on my own back in Hawaii (since a general power of attorney is never enough…don’t even get me going).

So I was OFFICIAL, I had a pretty beige Military ID Dependents card, I could get on and off post by myself, I could buy things on post without having to sneak someone else money – FREEDOM!!!!! Okay back to the point.

I went to a get together at one of my girlfriends’ house on post and we ran out of sodas, so we were trying to decide who would go and who would watch the kids. It came down to me, being the virgin ID card holder, going to the shopette to make my first official Army wife purchase. I was so excited! It was like being 16 and taking my first drive without a responsible adult looking over my shoulder from the passenger seat!

I get the sodas and go back to my car, but as I am walking I notice everyone standing and looking in the same direction. I stop, look, don’t see anything, and continue to my car. And then BOOM! A bomb went off, probably at the barracks I was sure of it, or we had just been hit by a missile and I needed to make sure my friends were okay. So I jump in my little blue Honda Civic and race frantically through post to my friend’s house to make sure everyone was okay and figure out how to keep the kids safe, and ourselves safe, and where should we evacuate to, and I needed to call my mom!

But as I arrived I noticed that none of them seemed panicked like me, none of them seemed the least bit concerned that the entire post was just shaken by some type of explosion. This was odd to me, and I was confused. One of the ladies looked at me and asked if I was alright, and I replied as sure of myself as anything, “I think a bomb just went off on post.” Bless her heart, she looked at me and replied, “And what makes you think that?” And so I told her about everyone standing there gawking like Americans do and a giant boom, and how I was so worried because, you know, when ladies get frightened sometimes they put their hand to their chest like they are holding their breath… and then all of a sudden I realized – RETREAT!

That’s right ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Prim and Proper had raced through post like a mad woman, did not even stop to look at the flag, or place her hand over her heart, or even THINK for goodness sake. So let’s chat about this little tradition called Retreat and To The Colors shall we.

The History Behind It

Before the invention of electronics, and I am talking Revolutionary War or older, quick and mass communication within the camp was difficult. The bugle was used throughout the Army to signal different events taking place in the camp. Each event had its own “call” that was sounded to alert the troops of things like chow time, drill time, wake up time, bed time, stable call, and the list continues. Three of these bugle calls have maintained their importance throughout the times. One is in the morning called Reveille, the other two are in the evening and make up Retreat and To The Colors.

These three calls have been used for over 900 years and can be traced back to the French Armies, the Americans began using Retreat during the Revolutionary War. The calls coincide with the flag raising and lowering as well as the official beginning and end of the duty day. The second part of the evening call, To The Colors, was used in place of the National Anthem when no Army band was present. It demands the same respect as the Star Spangled Banner. The calls not only let the post know that the day has begun or ended, they allow us a few moments every day to honor our Nation.

What Do You Do When It Happens?

So what are you supposed to do? Both in the morning and evening you STOP if you are outside. Stop your car, stop walking, stop talking on your cell phone, stop pumping gas, I hope you get the point that racing through post in your car is what NOT to do. If you are driving you pull to the right, stop your vehicle, and everyone in the vehicle gets out to render honors. For us dependents or civilians, we place our right hand over our hearts. Service members will go from parade rest during Retreat to rendering a salute during To The Colors.

It is up to the Garrison Commander to whether or not artillery will be used between the two bugle calls. Obviously at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, when I was there, the Garrison Commander thought it appropriate to fire canons to symbolize the switch from Retreat to To The Colors, explaining the loud boom I thought was a bomb at the barracks. On some posts however, there will be only a long pause between the two calls.

Many think that these two fractions of time are imposing, that it is a hassle to get out of their cars and stand for our Nation’s flag. On some days I will be honest, they are few but there are some, I sigh while reluctantly pulling over to get out of my car. Normally these are the days when there are Soldiers abound, in their uniforms all standing at attention. It makes me remember that this is just one tiny moment and it is my duty as an Army wife to respect, honor, and set the example for traditions like this.

I found a beautiful quote that sums up the meaning of these two moments of our day written by Master Sgt. Mark Lyle:

“If, during “Reveille” or “Retreat,” remembering history is not enough, then pause and remember the men and women who are currently in harm’s way and who may be called on at any time to give the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. As a member of the honor guard, I can tell you how real and close to home that sacrifice is for me. The base honor guard escorted Sgts. Balmer and Kuglics to their final resting places. They will never hear the national anthem or be able to salute the flag again, but we have the opportunity to honor them each and every day by stopping and rendering the proper courtesies when “Reveille” and “Retreat” are played. “Reveille” takes only 110 seconds and “Retreat” 122 seconds. Both are small sacrifices for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. ”

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3 Responses to “Talking Tradition Thursdays – Retreat and To The Colors”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I’m so happy you shared this! I have never heard of it (Though I’m sure my Fiance would fill me in eventually) I’m sure had I not read this, I would be very confused my first time witnessing it. Thanks for the heads up! … and the good chuckle. You just saved a bunch of us from total embarrassment. *^_^*

  2. Robyn :) says:

    When i first encountered Retreat I wa son post for a meeting and the person was talking and then everyone was facing west(apparently there was a flag over there) and she stopped to do the same. I asked afterward what that was and it was explained to me :)

  3. stephanie says:

    I’ve heard them when I’m on the phone with some of my students (I work as a military admissions counselor for college). None of them ever told me what they were, just asked me to hold on while they saluted.

    Thank you so much for explaining this, my fiance is Guard about to go Active. : )

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