The Army is investigating a pair of reservists from the 9th Mission Support Command who appeared to run afoul of Defense Department rules concerning political campaigning while in uniform after they appeared on camera during the Democratic Party’s convention on Tuesday.
The pair, who were not identified in the segment, were part of a brief presentation by delegates from American Samoa during the convention’s roll call of states. A man and a woman wearing camouflage uniforms and specialist rank patches stood behind local party leaders Aliitama Sotoa and Patti Matila as they voiced their support for former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee.
In a statement Wednesday, Army officials confirmed they are looking into the incident.
“Wearing a uniform to a partisan political event like this is prohibited,” officials said in a statement. “The Army follows the Department of Defense’s longstanding and well-defined policy regarding political campaigns and elections to avoid the perception of DoD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of any political candidate, campaign or cause.
“Examples of prohibited political activities include campaigning for a candidate, soliciting contributions, marching in a partisan parade and wearing the uniform to a partisan event. "
Service members are not allowed to endorse candidates while representing the military.
Democratic Party officials said on Tuesday that the presentation was designed to “celebrate American Samoa’s legacy of military service” but did not respond to questions about whether the troops’ appearance was in violation of military rules. In a press conference Wednesday, party spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa called the troops’ inclusion “an oversight.”
Under long-standing Defense Department policy, service members and department civilian employees acting in their official capacity “may not engage in activities that associate the DOD with any partisan political campaign or elections.”
That specifically includes appearing in uniform at political campaign events.
In a statement Tuesday night, a department spokesman said that “all members of the armed forces, including active duty members, members of the reserve component not on active duty, and retired members, are prohibited from wearing military uniforms at political campaign or election events.”
The 9th Mission Support Command is an Army Reserve command which falls under U.S. Army Pacific. It’s headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii, and includes more than 3,500 reservists soldiers in places like American Samoa, Alask, Japan, Korea, Guam and Saipan.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a periodic reminder from the department that troops should be mindful in an election year of their duty to “uphold DoD’s longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical as we carry out our official responsibilities.”
However, military officials have also taken criticism in recent months for allowing President Donald Trump to use service members as backdrops for speeches more focused on political goals than public policy.
“I should not have been there,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said in remarks to a National Defense University commencement ceremony.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley also received significant public criticism for his appearance alongside Trump during a controversial photo-op in June at a church near the White House, after protesters had been violently cleared from surrounding public streets.
In early 2017, a group Navy SEALs received reprimands and remedial training for flying a Trump flag from their military vehicle during a convoy in Kentucky. On several occasions in recent years, troops’ decisions to wear “Make America Great Again” hats or ask for Trump to sign them after official speeches has prompted similar discussions about the role of politics in the ranks.
Speakers at this week’s Democratic convention on several occasions attacked Trump for his cavalier and political use of the military and vowed that Biden would not put troops in the same awkward political positions.
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There are reasons to be wary of politicizing the military beyond the concern, however unlikely, of a military junta.
The unidentified troops in Tuesday’s American Samoa presentation were not the only military personnel to be featured at the convention. Later in the evening, a Marine Corps veteran not wearing a uniform offered his thoughts on why Biden would be a stronger commander in chief than Trump.
A day earlier, as pictures of another veteran speaker were broadcast, party officials included an on-screen disclaimer noting that the appearance of individuals in uniform was not meant to imply an endorsement of Biden by the Defense Department.
American Samoa has among the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory and significantly higher casualty rates per capita in the recent wars than most other parts of America.