Rumor Doctor blog archive

Can troops be punished for damaging government property if they get a sunburn?

It’s summertime, so The Rumor Doctor is delving into the oft re-told rumor that servicemembers risk being disciplined for damaging government property if they get a sunburn.

This may sound like it contradicts the 13th Amendment, but let's not forget that the term “GI” means “Government Issue.”

One former airman told The Rumor Doctor that after he awoke from a nap on the beach with a terrible sunburn, a technical sergeant threatened to give him an Article 15 for damaging government property.

“That's what I was told,” said Patrick Dickson, now an editor at Stars and Stripes. “You belong to the government, and any injury from abuse or neglect is damaging government property.”

But military law experts told The Rumor Doctor that the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not support this view.

“You are not government property,” said James Klimaski, a civilian attorney who practices military law. “You’re still a human being. You still have free will, even in the military.”

Klimaski has told servicemembers in such situations to have their Judge Advocate General lawyer complain to their company commanders.

“That’s always been the end of it – even in the Marine Corps, probably the only service that really thinks that ‘Son, you are our property,’” Klimaski said.

Article 108 of the UCMJ says that government property has to have monetary value, and, “There’s no way to quantify the damage you would get from a sunburn,” said fellow attorney Michael Waddington.

“A judge would throw that out in a second, if someone was charged with damaging government property because they got a sunburn,” Waddington said.

But getting a sunburn could still get you a letter of reprimand, especially if you ignore an order to use sunblock and get a sunburn that prevents you from going on a mission, “But I don’t think even a commander would mess with that,” he said.

Still, Waddington could not rule out the possibility that servicemembers have been given nonjudicial punishment for spending too much time in the sun.

“I’ve seen guys get Article 15s for all sorts of stuff and they usually just take it, especially if they’re overseas,” Waddington said. “They get the Article 15, the commander tells them ‘Just shut up and take it and I’ll give you your rank back in 30 days.’ That doesn’t mean that it’s a legal Article 15.”

THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: This is a scare tactic that NCOs apparently like to use. Still, even Atticus Finch would recommend you use sunblock.


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