In an egregious violation of Department of Defense policy, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel has recorded an ad critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while appearing to wear a flight suit complete with unit patches and rank insignia. Wendy Rogers is a three-time Republican Congressional candidate in Arizona, and she most recently lost the GOP primary in the state’s 1st Congressional District in August. Rogers is also a retired Air Force pilot who was one of the first female pilots in the service.
“As a pilot in the United States Air Force, I was entrusted with classified information. We were always taught that you don’t send or receive classified information through unsecured channels,” Rogers says before going on to criticize Hillary Clinton for using a private, unsecured e-mail server to send and receive classified information.
Rogers was also taught that you can’t mix your uniform and politics.
A Department of Defense prohibition on wearing one’s military uniform while communicating a partisan political message is still very much in effect. A 2008 directive from the DOD explicitly outlines what is allowed and not allowed when it comes to political activity by active duty, reserve component and retired military personnel.
“Subject to any other restrictions in law, a member of the Armed Forces not on active duty may[engage in political activity] provided the member is not in uniform and does not otherwise act in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement,” DOD Directive 1344.10 reads.
The ad Rogers appears in is sponsored by Veterans for a Strong America, a group that has raised about $87,713 according to the Federal Election Commission. While the ad does not explicitly tell viewers who to vote for or against, the message certainly allows viewers to make the “inference,” to barrow from the DOD directive, that they – like Lt. Col. Rogers – should not vote for Clinton.
Rogers could try to skirt the issue of wearing her uniform by claiming that she is a retiree. But the DOD directive also includes guidance for those who have left military service. Paragraph 18.104.22.168 explains that while it is okay for former service members to mention their rank and service, “they must clearly indicate their retired or reserve status.”
Nothing on Rogers’ uniform indicates her retired status, nor does the scroll at the bottom of the screen disclose that she is retired. Her rank insignia appear on her uniform, and she identifies herself as ” Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers” without mentioning that she is retired.
Candidates and other public figures who are veterans may mention their current or previous military rank and service, and may include video clips or pictures of themselves in uniform, as long as they do not appear in uniform while talking in the ad, and as long as they identify that they are retired (if that is the case). They must also include a disclaimer that pictures or videos used do not constitute an endorsement by the Department of Defense. Rogers did include that mandatory disclaimer, but that still doesn’t authorize her to actually wear what appears to be a uniform while delivering a partisan or explicitly political message on camera.
In social media posts and on her campaign website, Rogers appears to pose with her Air Force jacket while wearing civilian clothes. She could try to say that she was wearing civilian clothes that couldn’t be seen in the ad, but if she wasn’t in uniform at all, she wouldn’t have had to include the disclaimer (which still doesn’t justify her actions).
By abusing her military rank and uniform, Rogers is helping fuel the call by some that senior military leaders always avoid partisan politics once they leave military service. That would be both a bad idea, and a violation of a long-standing American tradition of military leaders participating in politics and public policy once they have left uniformed service. But when military leaders like Rogers violate the trust of their oath by appearing in uniform to make partisan statements, they do threaten the civil-military relationship that respects the power of voters to elect civilian leaders who oversee the nation’s military.