Planning a military wedding comes with its own special traditions and steps. Military weddings don’t all look the same. As an event professional, you must consider the couple’s personality and vision, as well as how to incorporate historical traditions while following protocol. It’s a beautiful blend of wedding must-haves and military wedding staples. We got an inside look at military wedding best practices through a Q&A with Event Specialist and Military Marriage Coach, Bree Carroll.
Bree is an event planning extraordinaire and has a keen eye for design and transforming spaces. She also has a wealth of knowledge and experience with helping shape strong military marriages through her CARE method. As a voice in the milspouse community and the 2020-2021 AFI Air Force Spouse of the Year, she actively works to share the power of relationships through her Heart & Stripes podcast.
1. What are your go-to military wedding planning tips?
Determine the formality of the wedding early on to help determine military-specific details. For formal weddings with a heavy military guest list, you would need to follow specific protocol when it comes to seating distinguished guests, addressing invitations based on rank, and other details. The installations Protocol Office can assist you with any questions.
Determine if the wedding will be on installation or off. If the celebration is occurring behind the gates of an installation all guests will need to get approval for access. This may include providing guests’ first name, last name, and the last four digits of their social security number. As a planner, you’d need to coordinate with the installations Guard or Security Forces members. The service member will need to coordinate this as they would be the noted sponsor for the party and otherwise responsible for everyone listed that comes onto the installation. You can receive additional information from the installations Visitors Center to help guide the couple through this process. Please note, access to the installation may change based on a change in security measures.
2. What are some common traditions/ practices that are usually included in military weddings?
A staple in military weddings is typically seen in uniformed attire and the Saber Arch.
Uniforms: Servicemen and women may opt to wear their service dress or mess dress uniforms during their wedding. Formal white tie or black tie weddings would require a Mess dress, which is the uniform equivalent to a tuxedo, whereas less formal celebrations would require the suite equivalent of service dress uniforms. The service member may opt to wear their uniform of the day for an even more casual feel, like a no-fuss elopement. This is not as common, is an option to better fit the couple's style while incorporating military attire.
Saber Arch: One of the most commonly seen traditions for a military wedding is the Saber presentation. This differs a bit from branch to branch, but the overall concept is for fellow servicemen and women to create two parallel lines for an arch of swords for the couple to walk through at the conclusion of the ceremony. This is coordinated with the installations Honor Guard or equivalent and should be scheduled at least a month in advance. My favorite part of this tradition is that once the couple reaches the last pair of saber bearers, they drop their swords. The couple has to kiss before the swords are raised. As they proceed to walk off, lookout as the newlywed spouse (non-service member) may get a tap on the bottom with a “Welcome to the (Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard or Marine Corps)”.
3. How involved are planners in planning a military wedding? Are there any guidelines for planners on how involved they can be?
The planner's involvement is based on the needs of the couple. I always recommend being very clear and upfront on the couple's expectations of the planner. Having a planner is highly encouraged as couples are often new to the area and have little to no support in the area or they may be planning from out of town. In these situations, the planner is crucial and will have a very involved role.
4. What’s the timeline like for military weddings with unknown circumstances like deployment? What can planners do to help when the timeline is unknown?
A military wedding planning timeline may be as long as 18 months to as short as 60 days. Typically couples are planning around the major permanent change of stations (PCSs) or deployments, which will impact when they will hold their wedding. A service member's deployment cycle’s predictability depends on the member's role and branch of service. Some may have yearly to bi-yearly cycles whereas others may have three to six-month cycles. Ultimately, setting a date needs to be thoughtfully done by the service couple. Once one is set, commit to it. Planners should stay in communication with the couple to ensure that the date is still a good one. Leaving a timeline unknown should never be the plan, the key is to build in flexibility.
A tip I’d recommend is to ensure venue and creative partner contracts provide the flexibility to change the date as needed. A military clause may be written into agreements, which would clearly state what is feasible if the service member receives official orders to leave and dates need to be changed. This may come at a cost or yield a one-time no-cost change based on availability. Having this agreement in place gives the couple the peace of mind to at least know what their options are ahead of time.
5. If a wedding is held on-base what are ways to decorate or spruce it up? If a wedding isn't held on-base, what are some popular venues for military weddings?
On-base venues may provide a standard banquet style or provide historic charm that may appeal to the couple. Lighting is typically the best way to help transform a space. Draping can also give the space a more elegant look. Planners should review all installation space contracts thoroughly as some facilities are historic or newly constructed and yield a list of “don’t do's” (ex: hanging items). Outdoor options on installation are also a great option. If you’re outside, ensure that you have the proper permissions, a weather plan, and try to avoid/prepare for the 5 PM Retreat that will play the national anthem and require everyone to stop and salute.
Popular military wedding venues may vary based on the branch but consist of the Air Force, Army, and Naval Academies or military resorts like Shades of Green in Lake Buena Vista, FL near Disney World. Another option to take advantage of is destination weddings where installations have accommodations, like the islands of Hawaii, which have eleven military bases.
6. Are there any censorship regulations that wedding pros should be aware of?
The only censorship planners should be aware of is if the couple is in secure areas (Ex: Air Force flight lines where you may not be allowed to take images of any other aircraft besides the static display provided). In general, the ceremony and reception area are free to photograph.
I’d caution planners to help with censoring post verbiage on social media. Any specific details on when or where the service member may be deploying to would be unauthorized and should be discouraged as this is an operational security (OPSEC) issue.
- Appropriate Caption: Congratulations to the newlyweds! We are excited to share in their day and we honor Capt. Jones for how he will continue to serve and sacrifice for our nation.
- Unauthorized Caption: Congratulations to the newlyweds! We are excited to share in their big day before Capt. Jones leaves next week for a year-long deployment to Iraq.
7. Can you elaborate on your CARE method?
As a wedding and event planner, my motivator has always been to “make your marriage even more beautiful than your wedding day”. With 5 years of wedding planning & design experience, I realized that I cared less about the reception and more about relationships. I didn’t want my couples to just be happy on their wedding day, but rather for years and years to follow. With a background in both planning and civil engineering, I developed my Marriage Bride Blueprint, which contains the CARE method, which guides couples through four phases to design a marriage based on their core values.
- Phase 1: Careful Consideration - predesign and big picture vision for the marriage
- Phase 2: Assess the Foundation - acknowledge marital expectations based on your perceptions, past images, or habits
- Phase 3: Reinforce the Structure - establishing rules and boundaries within the relationship and for others to respect the marriage
- Phase 4: Engage + Trust - planning and practicing action to keep your marriage thriving
This is the process I walk individuals and married couples through during life and relationship coaching.
8. Do you have any general advice for wedding pros on how to reach out to and best support military couples?
Don’t feel like you need to know everything. More commonly than not, there is a spouse or couple that is trying to balance major lifestyle changes with the daunting task of planning a wedding and they are afraid to walk through it alone. As planners we get to be their guide that can help prioritize what’s most important, give them access to our network and tools to plan an authentic experience, and at times are the steady voice they need to hear amongst a lot of uncertainty or stress. Know that as the planner, you can reach out to installation agencies like Public Affairs, Protocol, and Security Forces to help you navigate any military-specific items or reach out to other planners, like me, who specialize in military weddings.
9. What’s your favorite part about planning military weddings?
This is my tribe. I know firsthand the sacrifices these couples have or will face and the challenges of military life. Planning beautiful ceremonies for these couples and making them feel taken care of throughout the process is an honor to me because they deserve it. Many couples don’t have weddings at all, which is fine if that is their choice. Knowing the amount of separation they will endure throughout a military career makes it even more crucial to ensure that the start of their marriage via the wedding is time spent thoughtfully together. These will be the memories they reflect on to get through those tough times so I’m passionate about making each moment meaningful.
If you have any questions about military weddings, feel free to email Bree at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn at itsbreecarroll.
Want to see more of Bree? Check out her website at https://bcarrollevents.com/
Hero photo courtesy of Laura & Rachel Photography