Pictures have surfaced of Trump’s Memorial Day address aboard the USS Wasp at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan on Monday that show active-duty service members wearing badges on their flight jumpsuits with the slogan “Make Aircrew Great Again.” These patches are a direct nod to Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” and feature his likeness in the center of the patch. This brazen act of political bias by Navy airmen goes well past the concept of “supporting the boss” and has left many questioning if wearing these patches is even legal.
Legal Standard for the Military
The Department of Defense has strict rules about how members of the U.S. military can participate in politics and engage in political activities. The reason for this is to prevent any appearance of bias or partisanship among the military, because members must follow directives of its civilian Commander in Chief and Congress, which might have opposing political affiliations. The governing laws for political participation restrictions is found in the Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, which provides guidance for military personnel concerning political activities and those who work for the federal government under the umbrella of the executive branch.
The key to this provision is that active duty members must not be in uniform when expressing political preferences.
This Directive specifies that active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the appearance of political sponsorship, approval, or endorsement for a candidate, campaign, or cause. Additionally, military members on active duty may not campaign for a partisan candidate, engage in partisan fundraising activities, serve as an officer of a partisan club, or speak before a partisan gathering. However, active duty members may express their personal opinions on political candidates or issues, make donations to a political campaign or organization, and attend political events when they are not in uniform. The key to this last provision is that in general, active duty members must not be in uniform when expressing political preferences.
What Constitutes Active Duty
The Department of Defense defines active duty as full-time duty in the active military service of the United States. This includes full-time training duty, annual training duty, and attendance at a service designated school. Members of the National Guard or Reserves are not included in these provisions unless they are serving on active duty status. A member of the military wearing a uniform typically denotes an active status and regardless of duty status, military members are limited in their expression of political preference in terms of signage. Although political bumper stickers on personal vehicles are allowed, large banners or signs, such as campaign signs displayed at a residence, are not.
These Patches Aren’t New
Military patches are not new-they have a longstanding tradition of being used during missions and are often considered to be morale boosting. The use of these patches is typically at the discretion of a commanding officer, which means that it’s likely a current commanding officer approved the Trump-centric ones now in question. In reviewing the patches that have been previously utilized, it’s apparent that a political component like the one in these patches is not really present in the same way. For example, I have yet to see an “I am not a Marine” patch over Nixon’s face, worn by the Navy.
The fact that a military serviceman is in his flight suit working hurricane relief and that the image was sanctioned by the Department of Defense official Twitter account makes it clear that he was on active duty.
This isn’t the first time these “Make Aircrew Great Again” patches have been worn by service members publicly. The Department of Defense posted an airman in his active duty jumpsuit wearing the patch on his sleeve on a DoD sanctioned website in September of 2017. The Department of Defense also tweeted the image from the official DoD Twitter account with a link to the same webpage and denoted that the serviceman pictured was assisting in Hurricane Maria relief. The fact that a military serviceman is in his flight suit is working hurricane relief and that the image was sanctioned by the Department of Defense publicly makes it clear that this is an active duty situation. Because the image of the patch went out for promotion and has yet to be removed, means that the DoD either intended to display a patch that violates its own rules, is not watching this issue closely, or simply does not care.
Unlike the instance above, it’s impossible to miss all of the military personnel wearing the “Make Aircrew Great Again” patches for Trump’s speech. This is most definitely an active duty occasion as evidenced by the uniforms and location and attendance for an event with the Commander in Chief would certainly be mandatory. But logic would dictate that if there’s a rule prohibiting service members from displaying campaign signs with a candidates name in their own front yards, displaying Trump’s face with a take on his 2016 campaign slogan would also be against protocol.
Whether these patches violate civilian law is arguable, but based on the standards specified by the Department of Defense, they are prohibited under military guidelines as they represent an obvious political preference while on active duty. But given the Trump Administration’s continued disregard for following laws involving forbidden political speech-I’m looking at you, Kellyanne Conway-it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any repercussion for these violations. The military has obviously taken a cue from Trump and doesn’t seem to have a proper regard for the rules-that’s really what these political patches represent. It’s a flagrant display of “the rules don’t apply to us” that the military is supposed to fight against and when the US Military starts bragging about breaking the rules like this, we are in real trouble.
Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero and a Scholar” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to Playboy Magazine, analyst for BBC radio and Director of The Inanna Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.