When You’re in Uniform, Keep Politics Out

I drilled for Navy Reserves at Buckley Air Force Base the day after the Presidential Inauguration. On Saturday, we were required to attend training about the new policy allowing transgender members to serve in the military. With the command’s Senior Enlisted by his side, the unit’s Commanding Officer began the training by outlining the new policy, emphasizing that, no matter what our personal beliefs were, we were to treat everyone — everyone — with professionalism, dignity, and respect, and that if we weren’t able to properly perform our duties while doing so, we could find another line of work. He also opened the floor to questions throughout the brief. A hand went up behind me. The first challenge of the day.

“This isn’t the Navy I signed up for, Sir,” the service member said.

Motherfuck. This again.

When I was active duty as a Naval Flight Officer, I attended similar training for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My squadron’s Senior Enlisted ran that one. He, too, opened the floor to questions. Again, a tide of challenges. These questions were not just the product of curiosity. They were intended to undermine an impending policy. Throughout, there was a lieutenant commander sitting in front of me giving a running commentary about his disapproval.

I didn’t speak out against him or anyone else during either training. I didn’t challenge them on the intention of their questions. Maybe I should have. I’m just a junior officer. I felt like I couldn’t. Like I shouldn’t. I kept my mouth shut. During and after both trainings, I didn’t say anything.

Here’s what I didn’t have the courage to say to everyone speaking out against the policy: Fall in. Fall in, Sailor. You’re here to follow policy, not to affect it. You want that to change, then change your job. Or wait until the end of the day when you take off your uniform. Until then, fall in.

And most people get that. That’s probably why we talk about sports and movies so goddamn much — it’s seriously like a living version of the defunct online magazine “Grantland” up in here — people realize that politics and the uniform do not mix. Sailors complain, but that’s what sailors do. Grumblings come, grumblings go. But the bond to our fellow service members is steadfast regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, as is our goal of mission accomplishment.

When I was at Annapolis and I tried to say boo about W., people would say “Hey, man, not cool, he’s our Commander-in-Chief.” Fair enough. But once Obama took over, when I was in the fleet, it was open season for eight years, and stray opinions were allowed to be voiced as long as the ideas coincided with the military cultural norm of Conservatism. Outnumbered and ill equipped, I kept my mouth shut then, too. No more.

Now that Trump is in office, and if you’re uniform, this is my message to you: keep politics out of it. I will do the same.

What we do transcends politics and ideology. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to have an opinion. On the contrary. America’s diversity is our military’s strength, our unique sense of who we are. It keeps our power in check, and it helps us to execute that power with precision and compassion. The military is not a blunt instrument. It’s a collective of individuals.

Yes, I’m a Democrat. Maybe you could tell. Most of my best friends are in the military — many of them are Republicans, and more than a few are Democrats. They’re some of the best people I know.

During my last tour, I was the sole American officer at the Japanese Naval Academy near Hiroshima. The loneliness was killing me. I had something like depression. My mailbox was at an American army ammunitions depot across the bay, where I befriended one of the Sergeants. He called me Sir. I told him to call me Colin. He told me to call him Frank. Whenever I came to get my mail, I’d catch up with Frank, and we’d grab a burger, drink whiskey together, and trade sea stories. My last week in Japan, we went out to a karaoke bar until three in the morning. I don’t know Frank’s politics. I don’t care. Frank is my brother.

So when you’re out of uniform, and you do decide to talk politics with each other, remember why you joined the military. Was it really just for yourself, or the desire to be part of something more? And if you disagree with each other, remember that disagreement isn’t a sin, either. Hell, it’s Red, White, and Blue. Our bond was forged in timeless qualities that will forever outlast politics. The strength we find in each other is American’s military strength in the world.

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