People can become officers in a few different ways. They can go to a military academy like West Point, they can go through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, go through Officer Candidate School, or be appointed to an officer position. Soldiers must have college degrees to be officers.
Enlisted Soldiers have the opportunity to become officers through various programs, one of which, Green to Gold, helps enlisted Soldiers through college. After graduation, they obtain the rank of second lieutenant.
Warrant officers are bit different. Where commissioned officers get a commission after completion of OCS, warrant officers are appointed special by warrant of the Secretary of the Army. They make up the technical foundation of the Army, and are highly competent and trained in their fields.
Commissioned officers
Commissioned officers are divided into company grade, field grade and general officers. Company grade officers begin with the rank of second lieutenant. Also known as an O-1, second lieutenant is the entry rank for officers. Their insignia is a single gold bar.
First lieutenants are the executive officers of company sized units. Their paygrade is O-2, and their insignia is a single silver bar. They are the senior lieutenant to second lieutenants.
Captains, O-3, are noted by two silver bars side by side. They are very often company commanders.
Field grade officers begin with a major, O-4. Their insignia is a gold oak leaf.
Lieutenant colonels, O-5, also have an oak leaf, but theirs is silver. They are typically battalion commanders.
A colonel, O-6, is typically a brigade commander. Their insignia is a spread eagle and are often referred to as “full birds.”
General officers, or “generals”, make up the highest ranking officials in the Army. Generals command division sized units and Army installations, and often work with civilian leaders.
The insignia of a general is pretty easy to discern — they are all stars. Often, you’ll hear generals referred to by their star count. A brigadier general, O-7, has one star, a major general, O-8, has two. Lieutenant generals, like the current commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps Stephen Townsend, have three stars. Their paygrade is O-9. A general, O-10, has four stars.
There is a five star general, the General of the Army, but the position is only appointed during a time of war. The last time a General of the Army was appointed was in 1950.
Warrant Officers
Warrant officers have five ranks. Their paygrades are W-1 to W-5. Soldiers often informally address W-2s and higher as “chief.” These Soldiers are also addressed as “mister” and “missus” versus the “sir” and “ma’am” of other officers.
Warrant officer ranks are a series of black squares inside a bar. A W-1 has one box, a W-2 has two boxes and so on until Chief Warrant Officer 5. Their insignia is one long black strip inside the bar.
Ranks can be difficult to determine, but a lot of it is just memorization. They are something that every Soldier knows, but it is just as beneficial, on a basic level, for the Families to know whom they may be addressing.