In the United States Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force, colonel /ˈkɜːrnəl/ is the most senior field grade military officer rank immediately above the rank of lieutenant colonel and immediately below the rank of brigadier general. It is equivalent to the naval rank of captain in the other uniformed services. The pay grade for colonel is O-6.
The insignia of the rank of colonel, as seen on the right, is worn on the officer's left side (a mirror-image version is worn on the right side, such that the eagle always faces forward to the wearer's front; the left-side version is also worn centered on fatigue caps, helmets, ACU & ECWCS breasts, inter alia).
The insignia for a colonel is a silver eagle which is a stylized representation of the eagle dominating the Great Seal of the United States (which is the coat of arms of the United States). As on the Great Seal, the eagle has a U.S. shield superimposed on its chest and is holding an olive branch and bundle of arrows in its talons. However, in simplification of the Great Seal image, the insignia lacks the scroll in the eagle's mouth and the rosette above its head. On the Great Seal, the olive branch is always clutched in the eagle's right-side talons, while the bundle of arrows is always clutched in the left-side talons. The head of the eagle faces towards the olive branch, rather than the arrows, advocating peace rather than war. As a result, the head of the eagle always faces towards the viewer's left. During World War II the military insignia for the rank of Colonel changed somewhat with the eagle facing the arrows. This was done only during war years. These special "war eagles," although rare, can sometimes be found in military surplus or memorabilia sales.
However, when worn as a single insignia with no matching pair, such as on the patrol cap, garrison cap/flight cap, or the front of the Army ACU, there is a split between the services on which mirror image of the eagle should be worn. In the United States Army and United States Air Force, the eagle is always worn with "the head of the eagle to the wearer's right," with the olive branch clutched in the eagle's right hand talons (see Army Regulation 670-1, paragraph 28-6 (a)(1)). In the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, United States Coast Guard and NOAA, the eagle is worn with "the head facing forward" on the wearer's right side of the garrison cover (see Marine Corps Order P1020.34G, Uniform Regulation, paragraph 4005d(1)). Since respective service's officer insignia is worn on the left side and the rank insignia is worn on the right hand side of the Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and NOAA garrison caps, the eagle is facing to the eagle's left with the olive branch clutched in the eagle's left hand talons, which is a mirror opposite to the wear of the single eagle for Army and Air Force officers.
The United States rank of colonel is a direct successor to the same rank in the British Army. The first colonels in America were appointed from Colonial militias maintained as reserves to the British Army in the American colonies. Upon the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, colonial legislatures would grant commissions to men to raise a regiment and serve as its colonels. Thus, the first American colonels were usually respected men with ties in local communities and active in politics. Such was the origin of the phrase "soldier and statesman".
With the post-war reduction of the US Army, the rank of colonel disappeared, and was not re-introduced until 1802.
The first insignia for the rank of colonel consisted of gold epaulettes worn on the blue uniform of the Continental Army. The first recorded use of the eagle insignia was in 1805 as this insignia was made official in uniform regulations by 1810.
The rank of colonel was relatively rare in the early 19th century, partly because the U.S. Army was very small, and the rank was usually obtained only after long years of service. During the War of 1812 the Army grew rapidly and many colonels were appointed, but most these colonels were discharged when their regiments were disbanded at the war's conclusion. A number of other colonels were appointed by brevet - an honorary promotion usually for distinguished service in combat.
The American Civil War saw a large influx of colonels as the rank was commonly held in both the Confederate army and Union Army by those who commanded a regiment. Since most regiments were state formations and were quickly raised, the colonels in command of the regiments were known by the title "Colonel of Volunteers," in contrast to Regular Army colonels who held permanent commissions.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army maintained a unique insignia for colonel, three stars worn on the collar of a uniform. Robert E. Lee wore this insignia due to his former rank in the United States Army and refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate general, stating that he would only accept permanent promotion when the South had achieved independence.
After the Civil War, the rank of colonel again became rare as the forces of the United States Army became extremely small. However, many colonels were appointed in the volunteers during the Spanish–American War, prominent among them Theodore Roosevelt and David Grant Colson.
World War I and World War II saw the largest numbers of colonels ever appointed in the U.S. military. This was mostly due to the temporary ranks of the National Army and the Army of the United States, where those who would normally hold the rank of Captain in the peacetime Regular Army were thrust into the rank of colonel during these two wars.
By the end of the Korean War, appointments to the rank of colonel were standardized to be granted after roughly 16–18 years of service in the military; however, temporary colonel appointments continued well into the Vietnam War. The last temporary appointments to the rank of colonel were in the late 1970s; since then, all colonels have received permanent appointments upon promotion. Currently, an officer typically reaches the rank of colonel after around 21–23 years of military service.
Modern American colonels usually command Army infantry, artillery, armor, aviation or other types of brigades, USMC regiments, Marine Expeditionary Units or Marine Aircraft Groups, and USAF groups or wings. An Army colonel typically commands brigade-sized units (4,000 to 6,000 soldiers), with another colonel or a lieutenant colonel as Deputy Commander, a major as executive officer, and a Command Sergeant Major as a senior non-commissioned officer advisor. An Air Force colonel typically commands a wing consisting of 1,000 to 4,000+ airmen with another colonel as the vice commander and a Command Chief Master Sergeant as principal senior NCO enlisted adviser. Some USAF colonels are commanders of groups, which are the four major components of wings. Colonels are also found as the chief of staff at divisional level-(Army) or Numbered Air Force-level staff agencies.
In the modern armed forces, the colonel's eagle is worn facing forward with head and beak pointing towards the wearer's front. Of all U.S. military commissioned officer rank, only the colonel's eagle has a distinct right and left insignia. All other commissioned officer rank insignia can be worn on either the right or left side.
Colonels are sometimes referred to (but not addressed as) full colonels, bird colonels, or full bird colonels because lieutenant colonels are also referred to and addressed in correspondence as "colonel." Referring to an "O6", a colonel's pay grade, also may differentiate colonels and lieutenant colonels.
Most colonels attend war college or a senior staff college equivalent to study joint warfare and war itself. Most Army colonels receive postgraduate level senior joint professional military education (JPME) at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The 2009 graduating class was 336 including 198 army officers and the rest divided among other military branches, domestic inter-agency representatives and other foreign military leaders. The highest concentration of USAF colonels graduate from the Air War College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama via in-residence at Maxwell AFB. This program will include participation by officers from various other branches. Marine colonels may graduate from the Marine War College or, like all other branches, may receive credit via non-resident attendance at another installation, via correspondence, or will be graduates of an equivalent senior JPME program sponsored by the National Defense University or one of the other U.S. military services.
Some people known as "colonels" are actually recipients of honorary colonel ranks from a state governor and are not officers of the U.S. military. In the 19th century the honorary colonels were military appointments and they still are nominally appointed to governor's staff, but without military rights or duties. Famous honorary colonels include Colonel Harland Sanders of KFC fame, a Kentucky colonel; Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, who received the honor from a Louisiana governor; and Edward M. House, known as Colonel House, a Texas honorary colonel and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson.Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin – Second person to step on the moon.
Charlie Beckwith – Founder of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the Army's elite top-secret special forces detachment.
John Boyd – Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist. Responsible for developing EM theory (Energy-Maneuverability theory), a method of determining the performance capabilities of a prospective fighter [plane] before production. Boyd also developed and espoused the concept of the OODA Loop, a decision making process now perceived as highly relevant to strategic and tactical action in both military and business operations. It favors agility and maneuverability in making rapid decisions to confound the opposition. Boyd also was one of the chief architects of Operation Desert Storm, during the Gulf War, transforming it from its initial concept as a frontal assault into a maneuverability war.
Anthony G. Brown – Lieutenant Governor of Maryland (2007–2015) and Commander of the 153rd Legal Support Organization in Pennsylvania; formerly the highest-ranking elected official in the nation to have served a tour of duty in Iraq; Co-Chair of the Obama/Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Alexander Butterfield – U.S. Air Force colonel who became an aide to President Nixon and was later appointed administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Cooperated with prosecutors during the Watergate scandal.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – Commander of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg.
Jeff Cooper – World War II and Korean War veteran and "The Father of Modern Shooting."
John Jackson Dickison – led the Confederate forces which captured the USS Columbine, in the only known incident in US history where a cavalry unit sank an enemy gunboat.
Federico Fernández Cavada – Union Army colonel who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and later became the Commander-in-Chief of Cuban forces during the Ten Years' War.
Wesley L. Fox – United States Marine Corps recipient of the Medal of Honor.
John Glenn – Marine Corps aviator, served in Korea, astronaut and U.S. Senator.
Ambrosio José Gonzales – Cuban revolutionary who fought for the US annexation of Cuba before serving as a colonel in the CSA.
David Hackworth – Served in Korea and Vietnam, an author and military media consultant. Formerly the highest decorated living soldier.
Jack H. Jacobs – Served in Vietnam, recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Henry Knox – As colonel of the Continental Regiment of Artillery in 1776, he brought guns from Ft. Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights, forcing the British out of Boston the next morning. Later, President Washington made him Secretary of War as part of the first Presidential Cabinet in America. He also served in Washington's crossing of the Delaware River for the Battle of Trenton.
W. Patrick Lang Retired Special Forces officer, Commentator on the Middle East. Intelligence Executive, and Author
Robert E. Lee – Led the raid against John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Commanding general of the Confederate army.
Ed McMahon – United States Marine Corps aviator and television personality.
Martha McSally – United States Air Force first American woman to fly in combat.
Virgil R. Miller – Regimental commander of the 442d Regimental Combat Team (RCT), a unit which was composed of "Nisei" (second generation Americans of Japanese descent), during World War II. He led the 442nd in its rescue of the Lost Texas Battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, in the forests of the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France.
John Mosby - Confederate Army cavalry leader who was known for his innovation of guerilla tactics and unconventional warfare.
William Moultrie – Defended Ft. Sullivan (later to be named Ft. Moultrie in honor of the colonel) against British attack in 1776; his regiment was later absorbed by the Continental Army, and he was promoted to brigadier general.
William Wilson Quinn – Served under Patton during World War II and received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and became a Knight and Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor; he also was the commanding officer of the 17th Infantry during the Korean War, which he served two years in. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hermann Goring and arrived at Dachau the day after it was liberated. After the war Quinn played a key role in forming the CIA.
Felix Rodriguez – A former Central Intelligence Agency officer infamous for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in the interrogation and execution of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, and his ties to George H. W. Bush during the Iran-Contra Affair.
Theodore Roosevelt – 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, recipient of the Medal of Honor, and later 26th President of the United States.
Henry Rutgers – Revolutionary War colonel - philanthropist and namesake of Rutgers University.
Robert Gould Shaw – Commander of the African American Army Regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.