The uniform that we wear is sacrosanct. It is much more than the materials that compose it. We wear it carefully, with the understanding that we are fortunate to wear it, and with the recognition that it carries the weight of the sacrifices of past, present, and future generations. We wear it with the realization that once we don it, we stand for something above and beyond ourselves. Wearing the uniform, we represent a specific set of values and ideals to Americans. The uniform is a symbol of the defense of freedom, of strength, and of the amazing concept of the United States of America.
But sometimes pride in the uniform clashes with another type of pride.
On Saturday, July 21, San Diego held its annual gay pride parade. In past years, military members have marched in the parade wearing civilian clothes or military t-shirts.
This year, the event captured national attention due to the Pentagon-sanctioned participation of active duty military members marching in uniform. Department of Defense regulations prohibit servicemembers from wearing the uniform while participating in political activities, supporting, promoting, or furthering a political cause, or participating in any activity or behavior that might bring discredit upon the military or imply military endorsement. Despite existing regulations, however, DoD made a one-time allowance for the San Diego parade.
DoD officials stated that they allowed military members to wear their uniforms in the parade because “organizers had encouraged military personnel to march in their uniform and the event was getting national attention” (CBS news article, 21 July 2012). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed, and servicemembers can serve openly. But should they be allowed to march in uniform in parades—even if for one day only—to show their pride and support for finally serving openly?
Back in May, two airmen from the Washington National Guard were reprimanded for being photographed while breastfeeding in uniform. A spokesman pointed out that breastfeeding in uniform wasn’t a concern. The problem was that the two airmen purposely posed for pictures in uniform for a breastfeeding support group’s campaign for Breastfeeding Awareness Month, violating the Air Force’s prohibition on using the uniform to “advance the cause of an outside organization” (Air Force Times article, 1 June 2012). From the article: “‘The uniform was misused. That’s against regulations,’ [Captain Keith] Kosik said. ‘I want to be very, very clear about this. Our issue is not, nor has it ever been, about breastfeeding. It has to do with honoring the uniform and making sure it’s not misused. I can’t wear my uniform to a political rally, to try to sell you something or push an ideology. That was our point of contention.’”
And it’s the right point to make. A servicemember’s support of breastfeeding or homosexuality is not the issue. Supporting any of the many noble yet politicized causes that blanket the American landscape is not the issue. Pride in the uniform and all it stands for is the point. No matter what our personal beliefs are on breastfeeding or homosexuality, using the uniform to express an opinion to the greater public about military support (or not) for specific causes is against the rules, and for a very good reason.
We honor the uniform and the many who have proudly worn it before us by recognizing that it stands for much more than any one of us. No matter how strongly we each feel about individual causes, pride in the uniform should trump all.
The military cannot take sides in any political cause, and in the charged environment we operate in today, many causes become highly politicized. These two are no different. When DoD granted an exception for the pride parade, it stepped onto a slippery slope. The military must remain above the fray and above reproach.
Pride in oneself and pride in one’s service is important. But pride in what we all stand for in uniform trumps the rest.