By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Just about every soldier has grumbled — to himself — about an order. Relatively few openly defy them.
But what happens when a service member promotes the dismissal of the commander-in-chief?
In the case of Wisconsin Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Nathan Weier and others like him, seeking a change of command appears to be a democratic right.
Weier, of Dodgeville, signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker, according to Verify the Recall, an online database of the 900,000-plus recall signatures. His superior, in an interview with Wisconsin Reporter, confirmed Weier signed the petition.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rules of engagement
Under military regulations, Weier is not prohibited from signing recall petitions or putting up a sign in his yard promoting the recall and political ouster of Walker — each Wisconsin National Guard member’s commander-in-chief. The governor remains the top commander until guardsmen are federalized, called to serve, for instance, in war, as Weier has.
“An active duty soldier or airman can exercise their constitutional right to vote, or weigh in like any other citizen to express an opinion,” said Col. Julio R Barron, Staff Judge Advocate for the Wisconsin National Guard. “When a warrant officer signs a recall petition, he or she is exercising their constitutional right.”
Military rights and prohibitions relating to political activities are spelled out in the U.S. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activity of Military Members.
In short, a member of the military is, like the citizens they serve, free to register, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues.
“It is DOD policy to encourage members of the Armed Forces … to carry out the obligations of citizenship,” the directive states.
But service members are not allowed to engage in political activity while in uniform, or otherwise aligning any branch of the armed forces with partisan issues or contests.
“Anything that gives the implication that the military is taking a position on a political party,” Barron said.
Beyond that, the directive admonishes any “activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security” with a “partisan political activity” shall be avoided.
An emailer to Wisconsin Reporter, and the Wisconsin National Guard, believes the act of signing a recall petition is not acting in the spirit of the military’s prohibitions on political activity.
Act of disobedience?
The anonymous sender, who identified himself only as John Doe and claims to be an ex-Marine, said Weier and other service members who signed recall petitions against the governor are exhibiting a breakdown of military discipline.
“Back in my day if you didn’t care for a Commander one kept opinions to themselves,” the emailer wrote. “Signing a public document (recall) is not right per DOD directive 126.96.36.199”
The rules cited prohibits the publication of partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by a service member that solicits votes for or against a political party, candidate, or cause. This is different than a letter to the editor, which is allowable.
Barron and other National Guard officers, again, said the directive’s prohibitions would not apply to recall petitions.
Weier, a 13-year member of the armed services and Iraq War veteran, recognized in the past for exceptional service, said he is floored that anyone would call him out when he knows many other guardsmen who have signed the recall petition.
He said he signed the public document, off-duty, out of uniform, as citizen Nathan Weier, not Chief Warrant Officer Weier, and that he never told anybody, not even his wife, about his action.
While he said he may disagree with the governor’s policies, as a Wisconsin resident he respects his commander-in-chief.
“If the governor called me up right now, I’d do everything he says,” Weier said. “He is my commander-in chief. As a civilian, I exercised my right.”
Outside the lines
Some members of the military, however, have exceeded their rights.
Case in point: Jesse D. Thorsen, was reprimanded after he appeared on national television in his military fatigues and endorsed Republican Ron Paul’s presidential campaign after the Iowa caucuses.
Thorsen, an Army reservist serving with a Des Moines unit, told CNN he supported Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy. Paul called him on stage Jan. 3, and Thorsen said, “We don’t need to be picking fights overseas.” The reservist called Paul a rock star and called for supporters to pick up the pace in campaigning for Paul.
“As an active-duty Marine, I say, “Screw Obama,” and I will not follow the orders from him — all orders from him,” Stein told CBS News.
He also said he would not salute President Barack Obama, that he’s the economic enemy, the religious enemy, a domestic enemy.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard has noted a few incidents, mostly previously unreported, of soldiers crossing the line of regulation between political rights and prohibition.
Lt. Col. Jackie Guthrie, the Guard’s director of public affairs, said a couple of years ago during Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle’s second term, a young soldier wrote obscene comments about his commander-in-chief on his Facebook page.
The soldier identified himself as a service member and wore the uniform on his profile page.
“It (the complaint) was given to his command. He was a very young soldier,” Guthrie said, noting the service member was counseled about the rights and wrongs of political speech in the military.
A service member from Wisconsin was disciplined for making a political speech in La Crosse, Barron said.
But the officers said the incidents of political activity violations among service members are rare.
Guthrie acknowledges there’s a lot of confusion among the public about the political rights and privileges of military members.
The directive doesn’t prevent part-time soldiers from running for political office.
Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls, a Republican, was first elected to his post in 2002. He has served in the National Guard for 34 years.
Nehls said every service member has the right to express themselves politically, whether their pro-Walker, anti-Walker, Republican, Democrat or any other party member — as long as they do so within the confines of military code.
He said he doesn’t see any partisanship in the armed forces, and that “99.9 percent” of guardsmen keep politics out of their service.
“We don’t wear our party affiliation on our uniform; we wear the American flag on our right shoulder,” he said.