Thursday, March 6, 2014

Social Media & The Military: Don't Disrespect the Flag or Your Uniform

Since time began, there's been a saying in the military of "Privates will be Privates", which generally meant that despite being soldiers and ostensibly mature, responsible, disciplined, productive citizens they are also mostly kids barely out of high school and still prone to doing Dumb Things. This usually gets straightened out by the time one makes E-4 but not always.

(insert flashback music & sound effects here)

I'm a bit of an anachronism these days. I went to Basic Training in January of 1988, over a quarter of a century ago. A lot has changed since then, but a lot has stayed the same.What's changed? Well, the base I went to for Basic, Fort McClellan in Alabama is closed. The unit I was in for Basic, the 40th Military Police Battalion, closed down in December 1990 and was re-established in 2009 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas performing Internment and Resettlement duties. The base I was stationed at in Germany closed down in 1992, as did the unit I was in, the 285th Military Police Company, part of 42d MP Group. The 42d was resurrected in 2004 as the 42d MP Brigade at Joint Base Lewis/McChord in Washington. My second unit, the US Army Correctional Brigade, disbanded in 1992, the buildings were burned to the ground, and our section of Fort Riley, Kansas, known as Camp Funston, was pretty much razed and leveled. My Military Occupational Specialty of Military Police was renumbered from 95B to 31B. The uniforms have all changed completely. The M-60 machine gun is now the M-240. The M-16 rifle is now the M-4 carbine. You get the gist. More on this later.

Also: the Internet and cell phones were more or less science fiction. I mean, the mobile phone was a new and expensive gadget that only Wall Street tycoons and the idle rich had access to, and by & large desktop computers were monstrosities. Nowadays, I use my iPhone smaller than a deck of cards to access the globe instantaneously.

Yeah, phones used to be huge. Or came in a bag. Or both.

What's stayed the same? Kids still like to do Dumb Things.

(fast forward to present day)

Now we have the dangerous combination of social media, instant global access, portability, and tech-savvy young troops who still do Dumb Things. Chief among these Dumb Things seems to be the prevalence of posting pictures of themselves in uniform doing Dumb Things. These kids don't seem to realize that the Internet is a bit like Vegas; what goes there stays there but unlike Vegas, your secrets are broadcast to the universe.

Case in point: Army National Guard Specialist Terry Harrison of the Madison, Wisconsin-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment. Specialist Harrison posted a picture on her Instagram account of herself and soldiers from several other units cavorting and posing around an empty flag-draped casket in Arkansas. This is not proper behavior for a funeral detail, last time I checked. The caption reads, "We put the FUN in funeral -- your fearless honor guard from various states." Not cool.

I know that it's stressful being on a funeral detail but for the families it's just a bit more stressful. Blowing off some steam is one thing but doing it in a blatantly disrespectful manner is beyond the pale. If it was your loved one in that box, would you want the solemn respect they're due? Posting a picture saying a family is going to get a jacked up flag because it's cold outside? Most unprofessional. What if their loved one came back in a box marked "Remains Unviewable" meaning a closed-casket funeral and that flag is all they'll have left because they never saw their loved one in final repose? Because you were cold, you'll shirk your duty and give a grieving family less than your best?

Another picture that caused a ruckus was that of a woman in Air Force fatigues miming a tongue kiss with the iconic silhouette of the POW/MIA flag. Once the picture was discovered, shared, and went viral, people demanded to know who she was.  Turns out it that the airman in the photo is Staff Sergeant Cherish Byers. She is with the 92nd Security Forces Squadron stationed at Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington. Byers, now an E-5, was a Senior Airman (E-4) when the photo was taken. Byers hasn't publicly responded to emails requesting comment; however, her Facebook contained the following post before her account was removed: “This pic is 3 years old. I was a young airman who didn’t care (not uncommon). I was young and dumb. There are much bigger issues to be worried about than a 3 year old pic that was leaked. So get off of Facebook, and go to take care of your children, because one day it may be them in my shoes, getting called out of their name for a mistake that took a few second to make but a lifetime to make up for.”

Well, at least there's some remorse here and acknowledgement that it was a stupid act performed by a younger troop.Especially if she ever wants to make E-6.

However, remorse seems far from the mind of Tariqka Sheffey. Who's that, you ask? Well, Private First Class (E-3) Sheffey is a 24-year old single mom assigned to the 59th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. Her pictures have gone viral as well, pictures of her reclined in her car, with her captions admitting she's shirking her duties and avoiding having to salute the flag as it is lowered at the end of the duty day.

This one really chapped the collective ass of America, with a huge backlash across social media. The general consensus was that a soldier who doesn't have enough respect to salute the flag certainly won't fight for it. Sheffey later posted a video of herself on Tuesday expressing regret but did not offer an apology for her actions. “I seriously just want to say thank you to everybody who stood up to me today, like seriously. That shit to me was not that serious. I am not a disrespectful soldier and I really appreciate you all,” she said.

As for me, I feel it was disrespectful. And furthermore, it's indicative of a young soldier with a piss-poor attitude and could very well be a case of a bad command climate.

You see, as an E-3 she's likely been in the Army about a year. At only 12 months in she should still be under the watchful and diligent guiding eye of her squad leader, likely an E-6 Staff Sergeant, instead of hanging out in her car "all day" as she claims. This means her squad leader is failing her and I can guarantee that her squad leader is currently being made painfully aware of this permissive shortcoming. How do I know this? Because shit rolls downhill.

As soon as this went viral and people found out her unit, word of it had to have gone up the chain of command. This means someone from Public Affairs will have caught wind and had to tell the Commanding General of Fort Carson. That would be Major General Paul J. LaCamera, who also commands the 4th Infantry Division. I'm sure his next call was to the Division (and post) Command Sergeant Major, CSM David M. Clark since this involved an enlisted soldier in a unit attached to the Division. CSM Clark is the highest enlisted person on Carson. I'm sure he grabbed his phone and rung up the CSM for 43d Sustainment Brigade, CSM Anthony Traylor, who called CSM Shannon Caviness over at the 68th Combat Service Support Battalion, who in turn rang up the First Sergeant of the 59th Quartermaster Company, 1SG Eric Cantrell. Top Cantrell would, of course, be none-too-happy that the Battalion Command Sergeant Major called & wanted to see him, and would have summoned Sheffey, her squad leader, and her platoon sergeant to his office on the double. My guess is that after a colorful verbal onslaught by Top, the four of them would be meeting with the Battalion, Brigade, and Division Sar'Majors up at Division Headquarters later that afternoon to explain in great detail why this E-3 is on the Internet bragging about not rendering proper military courtesy to the flag at 1700 and why she is further boasting about hanging out in her car instead of performing her duties during the workday. This, friends, is how shit rolls downhill.

What this young private thought was just a cute and funny post on Instagram to impress her friends has now gotten her in deep kimchi. The very LEAST she can hope for is non-judicial punishment via an Article 15 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If it goes to court martial it gets much much worse. But the fun doesn't end here, folks. Her squad leader is screwed now and will get a ding on his/her NCOER (an eval report for Sergeants) for failure to provide proper leadership and supervision to this young troop and that could be a problem when trying to make E-7. The platoon sergeant could get a ding that keeps him/her from making E-8. When it comes time for the Company Commander of the 59th, Captain Karl Lee, to get his Officer Evaluation Report from his Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Stephanie Barton , this little incident will likely keep him from making Major. Barton may escape unscathed when they go looking for prospective bird Colonels to promote but in today's shrinking Army you need to walk on water to keep your career on track. The slightest failing or perceived failing could unravel you quickly.

PFC Sheffey had other fun pics online too. Including her mug shot, which some gossip site dug up. It's the Internet,'s all out there.

I used to detest seeing people on base literally running to get indoors at two minutes to five in the afternoon just to avoid saluting the flag. Is it that big a deal to come to attention for the bugle call of Retreat and render a hand salute during To The Colors? It's been a LONG time since I had to worry about this, but it's still found in AR 600-25 Salutes,Honors, and Visits of Courtesy and in FM 7-21.13 The Soldier's Guide, Chapter 4: Customs, Courtesies, and Traditions.

If you absolutely, positively HAVE to post pictures of yourself in the midst of debauchery, chicanery, or just plain grab-ass shenanigans, DO NOT do it in uniform and make sure that whatever you do brings no discredit to the military or our flag. You see, people have died for that flag and that uniform. To me it is simply unconscionable to disgrace the uniform. As a Military Policeman, it was drilled into me from the earliest minutes of Basic Training that you took pride in your uniform and your appearance and that your conduct while wearing it should be above reproach. We were told that in most cases we were the first people you see upon entering the base and that people would judge the entire Army by our conduct and appearance; if we looked like crap and acted like crap, then to the whole Army was crap. Therefore I took great pains to always look sharp and act professional in uniform. I almost NEVER ran errands in my uniform off-duty except maybe to get a haircut. Off duty the uniform came off and then I could relax a bit. I didn't drink in uniform except for the Military Police Anniversary Ball. I used to see this grizzled old Sergeant Major getting sloppy drunk every night in his uniform and to me it showed bad leadership and bad judgement for an E-9 to be seen like that. I lost my respect for the man and was not surprised at all when I found out he got busted for a DUI that ended his career.

Sure, off duty in civvies I'd cut up, act the fool, and have a good time, but I refused to bring discredit to the uniform by wearing it like people treat pajama pants and a hoodie. I went to a wedding once in my dress uniform, and my wedding date pissed me off by dragging me to the mall afterwards to show me off in my uniform rather than give me ten minutes to change so I wouldn't be seen wandering the mall on a Saturday afternoon in my Class-A's. Worse still, she kicked off her heels and carried them, walking through the mall barefoot while holding my arm. I was mortified and we went our separate ways soon after. It's a uniform, not a costume.

These are genuinely funny. They aren't in poor taste and bring no discredit upon the military.
This however does. Dude, you ain't on Crenshaw with your West Side homies. Knock that shit off.

Taking pictures of yourself goofing off is a long-standing tradition among the troops. But if it's genuine humor that brings no discredit, well, hell, we all like a good laugh. But don't sully the uniform of your service throwing gang signs, looking like Joe Shit the Ragbag, or doing illegal things. You'll be found out, and you'll be standing there at the bottom of that hill with your mouth wide open as that giant open-faced shit sandwich rolls down to splatter across your face.

And how did I get all the info on Sheffey's chain of command? It's the Internet. You can find anything.

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