Military and Politics—Exercising your rights as an Airman and citizen

  • Published
  • By Capt. Daniel Cook, 480th Fighter Squadron

Currently, it seems every time you open your smartphone or computer and scroll through any number of social media and internet news outlets you’re bombarded with articles, analysis, and pundits discussing the same topic: politics. With election season in full-swing in the United States, political debate is difficult to avoid.  However, the subject of politics in the Armed Forces is justifiably taboo. 

As members of the United States Armed Forces, restrictions regarding political activity are governed by several directives and instructions to include Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 and Air Force Instruction 51-508. These restrictions are in place in order to maintain good order and discipline and to avoid the appearance of improper Department of Defense endorsements in political affairs. Understanding the guidance in these instructions is crucial to effectively exercising your rights as a U.S. Citizen while remaining within the bounds of the non-partisan nature of military service.  

The current issues polarizing Americans along all parts of the political spectrum are numerous.  Recent events at home and abroad elicit passionate responses from many. No matter our personal feelings about the issues confronting the nation and the world we must remember our most sacred responsibility as members of the U.S. Armed Forces. 

“…to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” a phrase emblazoned in both the Oath of Office and Oath of Enlistment, is the core responsibility of our service in the Armed Forces.  We fulfill this duty every day when we wake up, put on our uniform, and go to work doing our part to defend our nation and the values of freedom, liberty, and justice the Constitution represents.

We also have a civic duty as private citizens, whose rights are protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.  The most fundamental way to exercise your rights is to vote in your local, state, and federal elections.  After educating yourself on the issues at hand, there are numerous resources available to support you in exercising the right to vote.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program is designed to provide voting assistance to service members, their families, and U.S. citizens who reside overseas.  Their website has tons of information on how to vote in your local, state, and federal elections while overseas.  Additionally, your Unit Voting Assistance Officer is an excellent resource to provide you with the information you need to be a responsible and politically conscious citizen.

Reference DODD 1344.10, AFI 51-508, or the Legal Office for complete official guidance or questions on permitted and prohibited political activities. Please see below for a list of common Do’s and Don’ts regarding political activity:

Uniformed members of the Air Force MAY participate in the following activities (AFI 51-508):

  1. “Register to vote, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the AF or DoD.”
  2. “Promote and encourage others to exercise their voting rights, if such promotion does not constitute use of their official authority or influence to interfere with the outcome of any election.”
  3. “Attend partisan and nonpartisan political fundraising activities, meetings, rallies, debates, conventions, or activities as a spectator when not in uniform and when no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement can reasonably be drawn.”
  4. “Sign a petition for specific legislative action or a petition to place a candidate’s name on an official election ballot, if the signing does not obligate the member to engage in partisan political activity and is done as a private citizen and not as a representative of the AF or DoD.”
  5. “Make monetary contributions to a political organization, party, or committee favoring a particular candidate or slate of candidates, subject to limitations under Title 2, United States Code, Section 441a and Title 18, United States Code, Section 607.”
  6. “Participate fully in the Federal Voting Assistance Program.”

Uniformed members of the Air Force MAY NOT participate in the following activities (AFI 51-508):

  1. “Participate in partisan political fundraising activities (except as permitted in paragraph 2.3.), rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof), management of campaigns, or debates, either on one’s own behalf or on that of another. This prohibition applies whether the individual is in uniform or not, and regardless of whether an inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement may be drawn. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.”
  2. “Allow, or cause to be published, partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by the member that solicit votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”
  3. “Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate or cause.”
  4. “Participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate of a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”
  5. “Solicit or otherwise engage in fund-raising activities in federal offices or facilities, including military reservations, for any partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”
  6. “Display a large political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one’s residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.”
  7. “Attend any partisan political event as an official representative of the AF or DoD, even without actively participating, except as a member of a joint Armed Forces color guard at the opening ceremonies of the national convention of a political party recognized by the Federal Elections Commission, or as otherwise authorized by the SECAF.”
  8. “Participate, while in uniform, in any activity such as unofficial public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration which may imply AF sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted.”
  9. “Commissioned officers shall not use contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which the member is on duty or present as prohibited and punishable under Article 88, UCMJ.”

While the added challenge of living outside ones’ home country can present hurdles and may deter service members from voting absentee, the FVAP aims to streamline the voting process for overseas troops. The decision to vote is a very personal and private one, however it is our duty as Americans to have a say in who represents our country.