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Commentary | Jan. 10, 2012

Making the right choices this election year

By 2nd Lt. John Cooper 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The celebration of the start of 2012 brought with it many things that will make this year different than 2011--all those New Year's resolutions, renewed speculation about the accuracy of the Mayan calendar, and, of course, presidential election season.

If you have been following the Republican presidential primaries over the past few weeks, you may have been watching when Army Cpl. Jesse Thorsen, a combat engineer with the 416th Theater Engineer Company, appeared both on CNN and on stage at a Ron Paul post-caucus rally in Ankeny, Iowa, Jan. 3. Thorsen, a reservist, violated very specific Department of Defense rules by appearing on camera and on stage in support of Ron Paul, and his actions, especially during a presidential election year, present an opportunity to remind Airmen and Soldiers of that guidance.

DoD Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, outlines the political activities in which all service members can participate, as well as those from which they are prohibited. This directive applies not only to all active duty members, but also to members of the reserve component, and members of the National Guard on active duty.

Servicemembers retain many important political rights. We are allowed to vote, encourage others to vote, donate to political campaigns, display political bumper stickers, post yard signs (only for members living off-base), and serve as election officials, to name a few.

The list of prohibited behavior is longer and more specific. Service members cannot participate as delegates at nominating conventions, participate in radio or TV discussions or debates in support of a particular candidate or cause, or solicit campaign contributions in federal offices, including military installations, for candidates.

Another rule to keep in mind is that commissioned officers are not allowed to use "contemptuous words" in discussion of government leaders. Though the rule specifically mentions officers, it is one all service members should keep in mind next time they update a Facebook status or drop a catchy "hashtag" on Twitter. You are entitled to your opinion, but share it with respect, or don't share it at all.

Perhaps the most important rule to remember was the rule Thorsen broke--members of the Armed Forces cannot participate in "partisan political fundraising activities, rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof), management of campaigns, or debates, either on one's own behalf or on that of another, without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement." The important distinction here is that attendance at rallies or other such events is allowed, while participation, which implies some sort of role in the event, is prohibited, whether the member is in uniform or not.

Though all service members certainly have unique political persuasions, the military as a whole is a non-partisan organization, and it is important that the public see the Armed Forces as politically neutral. This protects the public trust in the DOD mission, and demonstrates that, unlike in so many other countries, the military exists not to support a particular regime, but the Constitution and the American way of life.

Thorsen's appearances in support of Rep. Paul undermined that reputation. Not only was his behavior embarrassing--his statement included veiled criticism of both Pres. Obama and Pres. George W. Bush's foreign policy-- but his actions could be construed to be a military endorsement of a particular candidate. Such behavior is contrary to DOD policy, and to our core values.

If you have questions about a particular activity, consult DOD Directive 1344.10, ask your first sergeant, or contact your installation JAG office. It is far better to get clarification before participating in a given activity, event, or campaign, because the consequences of violating these rules can be severe.

We all share the responsibility of preserving the reputation of the Armed Forces, just as we have the responsibility of being socially active and informed. Leadership has provided guidance on how to balance these goals, and it is up to each one of us to ensure we follow it, regardless of our political leanings. Keep that in mind as election season gets in full swing.