Servicemembers speaking out:A look at the policies, consequences
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following correction from July 26, 2003 applies to this story:
A July 22 Stars and Stripes gave incorrect information about who may be punished under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for speaking contemptuously of certain members of the military chain of command. Article 88 governs the conduct of commissioned officers only. However, under Article 134 of the UCMJ, soldiers or officers of any rank may be prosecuted for making “disloyal statements” against the U.S. government.
As frustration over their lengthening deployment grows among troops in Iraq, soldiers are smacking head-on into limits on their public speech.
Last week, several 3rd Infantry Division soldiers offered pointed criticisms of decisions by their chain of command. One called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Afterward, 3rd ID public affairs officers based at Baghdad International Airport barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from interviewing soldiers on the subject. They said there already has been too much negative publicity on the issue.
The U.S. Central Command’s top officer, Gen. John Abizaid, said July 16 at a Pentagon news briefing that some of the soldiers could be punished for their remarks.
“None of us that wear this uniform are free to say anything disparaging about the secretary of defense or the president of the United States,” Abizaid said. “Whatever action may be taken, whether it’s a verbal reprimand or something more stringent, is up to the commanders on the scene.”
Lt. Col. Nick Balice, a CENTCOM spokesman, said the military’s media policy hasn’t changed.
“[The policy] has always been for servicemembers to be able to speak openly and freely to the media, as long as they speak about issues that fall under their cognizance or level of expertise,” Balice said from CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
“When speaking on issues that are purely personal opinion, as was the case on the [ABC] media program, that was their personal opinion and what is done with that individual is up to the unit commander.”
Free speech has always been a sensitive issue in the military, where divulging secrets may put lives at risk or excessive complaining might undermine discipline in a unit. There are few regulations restricting the First Amendment rights of servicemembers. Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other directives do forbid officers and enlisted soldiers from speaking contemptuously of a specific group of officials, though the last time a military court prosecuted someone for violating it was in 1965.
Still, action has been taken against some after they have made public comments. Last year, Lt. Col. Steve Butler, a 24-year veteran Air Force officer, was suspended from his senior position at the Defense Language Institute for writing a letter to the Monterey, Calif., newspaper that was critical of President Bush.
Reluctance to speak
The perceived threat of even informal sanctions from their command makes many servicemembers reluctant to speak to the media.
About three dozen people at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, on Saturday were asked whether they thought those in uniform ought to be able to freely express opinions.
Only three were willing to answer, give their names and allow their photograph to be taken. One soldier who wished to remain anonymous answered, “Of course they should be able to speak their minds, but it’s simply not going to happen.”
Another said: “We’ve been briefed several times before we even got here, to refer all questions from the media to the public affairs office.”
When asked the question, a servicemember in his early 20s, wearing civilian clothes, paused for a long moment and said, “I’m not comfortable telling you what I really think, and I’m not going to lie to you, so it’s better if I just don’t say anything.”
Added another soldier: “C’mon man. People are getting into trouble for talking to the media, and now you want me to answer questions? Yeah, right. …”
But some soldiers in Iraq agree that free speech in the military needs limits.
Loyalty and risk
“We owe a sense of loyalty to senior officials and must trust them to make the right decision based on the information at their disposal,” Master Sgt. Shaun Trescott, 37, of 101st Corps Support Group said via e-mail from Mosul, Iraq.
“No doubt, a soldier will encounter times when he or she feels shortchanged by their leadership, but discipline will compel them to quietly trudge on and focus on the goal ahead.”
For many, the old saying “Loose lips sink ships” has real meaning, especially when they are in a war zone. Knowing lives could be at stake, they say they can tolerate certain restrictions that will help keep secrets or keep discipline in the ranks.
“Everybody knows it is for our protection, and our families,” said Spc. Angel Febus, 22, who is at Balad Air Base, Iraq, with the Germany-based 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. “You never know who’s around listening [to] the way we make plans and decisions. That’s the best way for the enemy to surprise us with an ambush.”
But other deployed soldiers say restricting their speech betrays the principles they are fighting for in Iraq and elsewhere.
“I find it absurd that these same people we put our lives on the line for can punish us for having our own opinions — which, in effect, is punishing our open-mindedness,” said Spc. Brandon Gullen, 21, of the 864th Engineer Battalion, in an e-mail from Balad. “There should be no restrictions on what we say.”
“As far as freedom of speech, I am 100 percent all for it,” wrote Sgt. William Hudgins, 22, of the Germany-based 3rd Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment. “I mean, it’s a constitutional right last time I checked.”
One deployed Apache pilot, who gave only his rank and last name, said military and civilian leaders are more than happy to hear praise from the lower echelons. But sometimes, he added, they need to hear unpleasant opinions.
“It’s a fine line, but criticism in and of itself does not undermine discipline,” the pilot wrote in an e-mail from Iraq. “If no one complains, these people will think that we’re all happy down here even though we’ve been yanked around since day one.”
Reporters up close
The Pentagon’s decision to “embed” unescorted journalists with military units during the invasion of Iraq put reporters closer to troops than at any time since the Vietnam War. The public got its most immediate, intimate view of war ever. But soldiers also felt freer than before about talking with reporters.
Many soldiers in the Middle East said they received at least some guidance about handling reporters’ questions.
“We have been encouraged to be forthright and honest with the media but, on the other hand, to abstain from disclosing our personal opinions regarding ongoing operations or political issues and decisions,” Trescott said.
Hudgins said his unit practiced mock interviews with a television reporter.
“We were given about a 15-minute class on what to say if the media asks certain questions,” he said. “But we also had a major in the background giving the slashing-throat motion when we shouldn’t comment.”
Many soldiers in the 3rd ID have said they believe the military’s civilian leadership has broken a string of promises about their homecoming from the war.
The 3rd ID deployed its four brigades — including about 16,500 soldiers — from Fort Stewart, Ga., in late 2002 and early 2003, before almost everyone else, then led the successful assault on Baghdad. They thought they would be going home shortly afterward.
Members of the 3rd ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week they have been given, in a matter of just a few weeks, at least three different times they would be going home, only to have their departure delayed.
The most recent promise, they told the paper, came July 7, when the acting chief of staff of the Army, Gen. John Keane, went to Fallujah to congratulate the troops and hand out awards.
Soldiers said Keane told them they would be returning home in a few weeks.
“When a general at that level gives his word, it’s like the word of God,” 1st Sgt. Jose Mercado, 40, a 22-year Army veteran, told ABC.
Last week, the Pentagon added to the confusion when Rumsfeld’s office and 3rd ID commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount issued differing schedules for the division’s homecoming. Abizaid said at his press briefing the 3rd ID would be “home by September, certainly out of Iraq by September, and they’ll be moving toward home in September.”
He qualified that, though, by saying that replacements would need to be in place before the division could return to Georgia.
The delays in getting their spouses home clearly has upset some Army family members.
“This saying one thing and backing out of it, all it does is breed distrust,” Michelle Brock, wife of a 3rd ID soldier, told ABC News. “It’s going to be really hard to trust anything that the military tells us again.”
The griping of spouses drew a public rebuke from Anita Blount, wife of 3rd ID commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, in the Fort Stewart base newspaper, CNN reported.
“We have the right to be disappointed, and it is understandable if we are angry,” Blount wrote in an open letter to the community. “I know that many of you believe you should embark on a campaign to raise awareness of the need for [the 3rd Infantry] to return. We need to be aware of a possible outcome of our outcries that could backfire on us directly.
“When the Iraqis see media coverage of disgruntled Americans publicly campaigning for the return of our soldiers from Iraq, they are encouraged and believe their strategy is working,” she said.
Third ID soldiers in Fallujah said they have received no orders preventing them from speaking to the press, or even guidance concerning what should and should not be said. Several soldiers, in fact, seemed puzzled by the question.
In Baghdad, Staff Sgt. Mark Ingham, a spokesman for Combined Task Force 7, the U.S. forces in Iraq, said that deployed soldiers have not been instructed to decline media interviews as a result of the 3rd ID flap.
Soldiers also have not been issued recent guidance on appropriate comments to the media, he said.
“Nothing has been put out officially,” Ingham said.
With the Baghdad summer getting hotter, the patience of soldiers and their families with the troops’ unexpectedly long and dangerous peacekeeping mission is stretching thinner.
“Frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing Pentagon officials, generals, politicians, and people at the Defense Department continue to say that the morale of the troops is still high, when every single person knows full well that it isn’t,” Erica Herrera of Illesheim, Germany, whose husband is an Apache Longbow pilot with the 6/6 Cavalry at Balad, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
“Now we are looking at possibly almost a year away without our husbands, friends and fathers. The country is in a sad state of affairs when you could go work at McDonald’s and get treated better than someone who is out defending the liberties and freedoms of our country.”
“It’s time,” said Gullen, of the 864th Engineer Battalion, “someone hears what the soldiers have to say about all this mess.”
Contributing to this report: Kent Harris in Baghdad, Iraq; Lisa Burgess in Fallujah, Iraq; Sandra Jontz in Washington, D.C.; Ray Conway at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany and The Associated Press.