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A Message to All Candidates: Our Troops Aren't Props

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Our troops are many things to many people. Heroes, parents, diplomats, victims, villains, victors. But as the GOP Primary races roll through New Hampshire this week, there is one thing that all of America must understand they're not: political props.

And that's not just my opinion, it's the law.

This is why so many of us in the military and veterans community were so shocked and outraged last Tuesday night when we saw Corporal Jesse Thorsen step up to the microphone in uniform and endorse Ron Paul for President. We know the law--the military law under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). We know Article 88 of UCMJ prohibits contemptuous speech by commissioned officers against the President and certain elected officials at penalty of court-martial. We also know that service members are only allowed to attend political rallies as spectators, according to Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, which states, "In keeping with the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, and that members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement..." And we troops and veterans understand why this directive exists.

It exists, like most laws, to protect the common good. It exists to protect our troops, our politics, and our democracy. It is what makes America different. It is what protects our political system from being hijacked by our military--and it's what keeps us from becoming a junta.

Since I first commented on this issue on Twitter on the night of the Iowa Caucus, the conversation has been intense. And healthy.  Primarily because it underscores how little much of the civilian public understands about our military, and it reveals a dangerous, unprecedented civilian-military divide in which less than one half of 1% of our nation has served in combat. Many well-intentioned people have fired back at me saying things like, "He's a soldier! He risked his life! He's entitled to free speech! He's entitled to his views as much, if not maybe more, than anyone else!" 

Actually, he's not.

Every one of us who has worn the uniform understands that you give up certain freedoms when you sign your contract with Uncle Sam. You give up the freedom to choose where you work, when you have time off, and what you can wear. And, you also give up what you can say. It's part of the deal. And we're okay with that. Like Christmas or missing the birth of our children, it's another sacrifice we make in service to our nation. Maybe one of the biggest. And we definitely understand it. 

We are taught in basic training, and often reminded by senior leaders, about the rules governing political activity. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in 2008 for Joint Forces Quarterly, "Keeping our politics private is a good first step. The only things we should be wearing on our sleeves are our military insignia."

It's not that we aren't passionate about candidates like the rest of America. It's all about the rules. Want to donate to your favorite candidate? Great. Want to go to a political event or rally? Sure. Just don't do it in uniform, use your rank, or identify yourself (overtly or implied) as a representative or spokesperson of the military. You can get your politics on, just don't cross the line. Afghanistan veteran Rajiv Srinivasan wrote an even more emotional explanation in TIME last week, writing that Corporal Thorsen's actions were "disgraceful ... [and] soil the American military uniform, one of the few icons that is still good in our country."

Still not convinced? 

Okay. So if you're alright with this soldier's decision to endorse the candidate of his choosing in Iowa, then I assume you'd be okay with General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, standing up and endorsing president Obama's reelection, or the candidacy of Mitt Romney--or any other candidate that catches his fancy? 

Negative. 

As we say in the military, that's a no-go. It can't happen. And that's why thankfully, it doesn't.

Now, there are plenty of times politicians push the limits of rules to get the "strong-on-defense" optics of a wall of uniforms behind them at a podium. Presidents do it often, and legally they can, provided it's not a campaign speech or a political convention. Bush did it. Obama has done it, too. But hopefully, the President won't do it again. And if he does, after reading this piece, I hope you will call him and his campaign out on it. 

Candidates can also sneakily push the limit. Last October 7, Mitt Romney gave his Afghanistan speech at The Citadel before a group of cadets (most of whom are not yet officially military personnel). He pushed the limits, but legally. And most Americans didn't know the difference.

But Corporal Jesse Thorsen should have known better. And Ron Paul and his campaign definitely should have known better. 

The soldier will likely be punished by his chain of command. However, outside of a few tough questions from the media, and maybe losing a few votes, Ron Paul won't get much blowback on this. The lowly soldier will take the hit, and the real source of the problem will get off basically scot-free. Pretty awful. But unfortunately, after ten years of war in this country, we're all kind of used to that. After all, it's the same thing we saw happen after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

So in this big election year, if politicians (at every level of elected office nationwide) really respect our military and veterans, they won't just use them as political props or patronizingly applaud them at rallies. Instead, they'll ensure they have a robust, aggressive veteran-specific platform to invest in this New Greatest Generation and their families. A platform where they commit to protecting VA funding and the Post-9/11 GI Bill from budget cuts. One that includes a plan to get vets jobs as veteran unemployment hit 13% last week. They should commit to small business loans for vet entrepreneurs starting their own businesses. They should pledge to rapidly improve the VA, and to combating the skyrocketing suicide rate. They should promise to fight any changes to the DoD budget that nickel-and-dime our service members and their families by increasing fees and co-pays on troops and retirees as a way of cutting costs. And finally, they can support up-and-coming young veterans within either party (or no party) running for office at a time with the lowest percentage of veterans serving in Congress since World War II. That's how the candidates can really support our troops--and invest in America's future.

The next 11 months of the Presidential campaign are sure to be full of attacks, debates, political posturing and excessive pandering. But one thing that it should not be filled with is politicians using our troops for their own partisan political agenda. Our service members have been used in more than enough political debates in the last few years, by both parties. And they've definitely had their fill of fighting. 

So consider this is a warning and a plea to every single candidate this election year: let's respect our troops and our democracy, and keep them out of this one--especially, if you want to be our Commander-in-Chief. If you want that job for the next four years (or eight), you should know whether it's on the battlefields of Fallujah or Helmand, or the primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina, our troops aren't a prop. 

And they're nobody's toys.

Crossposted at www.iava.org.

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