Published June 18, 2009
In case you forgot, Barbara Boxer is a senator.
The feisty California lawmaker felt the need to remind an Army brigadier general of that fact Tuesday during a hearing before her Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where the military officer testifying had the apparent gall to call Boxer "ma'am."
Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was testifying on the Louisiana coastal restoration process in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He began to answer one of Boxer's questions with "ma'am" when Boxer immediately cut him off.
"You know, do me a favor," an irritated Boxer said. "Could say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?'"
"Yes, ma'am," Walsh interjected.
"It's just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it, yes, thank you," she said.
"Yes, senator," he responded.
However, Walsh surely meant no disrespect, as military protocol advises that officers may use "sir" or "ma'am" when addressing anybody higher than them on the chain of command.
"We would call them 'sir' or 'ma'am' or 'senator such-and-such'," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Nathan Banks said. Banks said any of those terms would be "appropriate" when addressing a senator.
According to one guide, the Navy and Coast Guard typically use "mister" or "miss" to address officers below the rank of commander, and "sir" or "ma'am," or a specific title, to address anyone at that rank or higher.
"You can never go wrong by using 'Sir' or 'Ma'am,' but it is a nice touch if you can properly address a senior officer," says the guide, Military Protocol: Uniformed Services.
A rep for Boxer said she and Walsh later spoke and discussed their respect for each other.
"Senator Boxer called Brigadier General Walsh earlier today. They had a friendly conversation, expressed their respect for each other and talked about how they look forward to working together to protect our communities from natural disasters."
Tuesday's hearing was hardly the first time a military officer used those terms during sworn testimony.
The same day at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, two Navy officials repeatedly referred to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., with the title, "sir."
"Yes, sir," Navy Vice Adm. Bernard McCullough said when answering questions.
Wicker raised no objections.