Are Military Bloggers Losing Their Free Speech?

One need look no further than the current case of Army Master Sergeant Nathan Sommers to find the answer to that question.

Sommers is a member of the Army band who is currently facing Article 15 punishment for expressing his personal opinion about current events and politicians. Like most Soldiers, MSG Sommers has opinions about the state of our country and the reasons it is in disarray. But, MSG Sommers isn’t a military blogger so what does that have to do anything?

The pinnacle of military blogs was about the 2006-2008 time period. Troops were encouraged to share their Army stories and talk about their life. In fact, prior to about 2009, Army leadership understood that not every story will be a glowing account of how great military service is. “People will always have something bad to say, but we take the good with the bad and trust the truth will come out. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but we’ve learned that most of the time it is,” said then-LTC Kevin Arata.

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And he was right. The majority of stories coming from bloggers were positive because the military was a great place to be. We loved serving our country and believed in the things for which we were fighting.

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However, in 2009, something changed. Leaders stopped supporting troops if they were critical in their blogs of anything. It got to the point – at least for me – where the Army wanted to literally censor what I could and couldn’t say. I had to run my blog posts through legal and public affairs channels before I could post them. Anything critical was immediately denied. Writing about military life became harder than actually living it.

Since 2009, the number of active duty troops that blogged openly plummeted. It wasn’t because we didn’t have anything to write about. It was because leaders at all levels began coming down on bloggers. There was a feeling of impending doom as if suddenly everything had to smell like roses or it shouldn’t be published. Many military bloggers, like myself, morphed into talking about current events.

Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 was a baseline document that recognized the rights of troops to have opinions on political topics. It recognizes that troops may “express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Armed Forces.” It also expressly states that it’s okay to “display a political bumper sticker on the member’s private vehicle.” In other words, we didn’t sign away our rights guaranteed under the First Amendment just because we volunteered to wear the uniform. AR 600-20, Army Command Policy, spells this out almost verbatim for Soldiers.

While the military was once heavily in favor of protecting the right of its military members to express its opinions, it now seeks to silence them completely. Troops can’t write about military life or express political opinions about politicians and issues. The tide has turned and people like Master Sergeant Nathan Sommers are paying the price for the politically correct atmosphere that is plaguing our military today.

In my daily Army Times news rollup, I saw an article titled “Odierno to leaders: We have lost Soldiers’ trust.” I thought, “Wow, we’re starting to admit that leaders have lost touch with the troops.” The article focused on sexual assaults, which are out of control in our Army, but I was saddened that it didn’t touch on other issues that have caused troops to lose trust in their leadership.

I remember a day when the Army would punish those that screwed up and would openly support those that were wronged. 15 years ago, if I were treated the way the Temple Police Department treated me on March 16, there would be Army leaders standing up for me. Instead, troops are automatically vilified before even getting a day in court and subjected to half-assed investigations that are slanted towards a pre-determined outcome. And career Soldiers who have had a successful career are exposed to these biases and treated to sanctioned oppression as in the case of Sommers.

Army documents obtained by Fox News indicate Sommers was told that his actions bordered on being disrespectful to President Obama and the “slightest inference of disrespect towards superiors can have a demoralizing effect on the unit.”

“You should strive to express your opinion while being aware of the overall ramifications of your statements,” the Army noted.

Sommers’ troubles began last April when he was told to remove pro-Republican, anti-Obama bumper stickers that were on his privately owned car.

The stickers read: “Political Dissent is NOT Racism,” “NOBAMA,” NOPE2012″ and “The Road to Bankruptcy is Paved with Ass-Fault.” That sticker included the image of a donkey.

His superior officer told the solider that the bumper stickers were creating “unnecessary workplace tension.”

“The types of stickers on your car were creating an atmosphere detrimental to morale and were creating unnecessary workplace tension,” the officer wrote in an Army document obtained by Fox News. “A Soldier must balance their personal feelings with the mission of the U.S. Army. Even the slightest inference of disrespect towards superiors can have a demoralizing effect on the unit.”

Attorney Wells said once he got involved, the military backed off of filing a formal reprimand.

About 18 months ago, I was formally counseled for discussing politically sensitive topics on my Facebook page. After being censored, I was again counseled for using this photo as my profile image.

It’s gotten so bad that leaders are actually sending out emails openly restricting troops’ rights to express their opinions on issues of national importance on their personal Facebook pages and blogs.

Soldiers using social media should avoid comments on gun control, Democrats, President Barack Obama or personal opinions about state and federal government, according to an email sent to an Alabama National Guard member and covered on the Military Times blog Outside the Wire.

The email was sent from a first sergeant to a member of the Alabama National Guard in January but only recently forwarded to Military Times. With the subject line “Social Networking,” the email offers what it says are dos for posting (saying happy birthday to a friend, for example) and don’ts (political commentary of just about any type.)

Where have all the milblogs gone? They’ve been banned and any dissenting thought censored. It’s a sad day when troops are denied the rights that they are currently fighting and dying to protect. You can talk about gay marriage – as long as you support it. You can talk about President Obama – as long as you praise him. You can talk about the NSA collection of millions of innocent Americans’ phone records in violation of the 4th Amendment – actually, no you can’t.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency or military unit.





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