If you've traveled in uniform, you've probably been approached by someone thanking you or even wanting to pay for your lunch. Or maybe the flight crew offered to bump you up to first class. It's nice to see such public displays of support, but you should know that there are important ethical rules that apply.
While federal regulations contain general principles of ethical conduct to guide public servants, this article will address some of the specific rules that apply in common situations faced by service members, specifically, those involving gifts, the use of government resources, and political participation. The rules that apply are based on the Joint Ethics Regulation (JER) and Code of Federal Regulations.
Giving or Accepting Gifts
It's hard to turn down a gift, even one that you don't want but would accept because it means so much to the person giving it to you. However, based on the situation and people involved, you may be required by law to respectfully decline. The two general rules relating to gifts are:
What’s a Gift?
A gift is defined as almost anything of monetary value, which would include goods, services, or discounts. However, there are exceptions which include:
Anything that fits into the above categories, such as a cup of coffee from someone in an airport terminal, is not considered a gift and can be accepted so long as they do not create any improper appearances. When it comes to first class upgrades for official travel, these are prohibited (even if you use your own frequent flier miles) unless approved ahead of time by the secretary of your service. Since that's not likely, it's better to stick with the coffee in the terminal.
What’s a Prohibited Source?
Generally, you’re not allowed to solicit or accept any gifts, regardless of the type of gift, from certain sources. Gifts from foreign governments, for example, are generally prohibited with a few exceptions. Gifts from entities seeking to do business with the military (such as defense contractors) are also prohibited.
Gifts in the workplace are also strictly regulated. Subordinates cannot give gifts to superiors, although there are exceptions for traditional gift giving occasions (holiday parties) or special occasions (marriages, transfers, or retirements). In either case, there is a $10 limit per person.
Use of Government Resources
Service members have a duty to protect and conserve government resources such as vehicles, equipment and supplies as well as the time spent on official work. Government property should only be used where authorized for one’s official duties. For example, while there are some exceptions for personal use, using your official government email account to acquire something of personal gain or to suggest the official endorsement of a person or organization is prohibited.
Service members don't lose their rights to political speech and activity when they join the military. In fact the military encourages service members to carry out their civic responsibilities, which can include:
However, because they wear the uniform, specific rules apply to ensure that service members don't intentionally or accidentally confer an official military endorsement. So, for example, service members are prohibited from:
In addition, under Article 88 of the UCMJ commissioned officers can face criminal charges for using "contemptuous words" against the President, Vice President, Congress, cabinet members, governors or state legislatures. You should therefore be mindful of what gets posted on your social media accounts.
What Are the Consequences?
It's important to know your ethical obligations, especially given the complexity of some rules and exceptions. Violating an ethical rule, after all, can lead to adverse administrative actions such as non-judicial punishment, or even a court-martial.
If you have questions about ethical rules, you can speak with your unit’s ethics officer. You can also find more information at the Department of Defense Standards of Conduct Office. If you're facing adverse actions based on an ethics violation, you should speak with a military lawyer or a civilian lawyer specializing in military law. For more information, see FindLaw’s article on hiring civilian attorneys for military matters.
Contact a qualified military law attorney to help you with military-related issues.