The Navy said on Tuesday that it is conducting a review to examine whether sailors aboard the USS Wasp violated Defense Department policy by sporting unofficial uniform patches with the phrase “Make Aircrew Great Again” during a Memorial Day visit by President Donald Trump.
The red, circular patch featured a finger-pointing cartoon figure similar in appearance to Trump with words reminiscent of his famous campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Photographs of several Navy airmen aboard the warship in Japan wearing the patches circulated Tuesday on Twitter, where they were first posted by a Wall Street Journal reporter travelling with the president.
Airmen onboard the USS WASP wearing patches on their jumpsuits that read “Make Aircrew Great Again.” The patches include an image in the center in the likeness of President Trump. pic.twitter.com/rQKAyrcDte
— Vivian Salama (@vmsalama) May 28, 2019
DoD Directive 1344.10 broadly prohibits active-duty service members from engaging in “partisan political activity,” including any activity involving a “partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device” while on government property or while wearing a U.S. military uniform.
“Navy leadership is currently reviewing this instance to ensure that the wearing of the patch does not violate DOD policy or regulations,” Lt. Samuel Boyle, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, wrote in a single-sentence email Tuesday afternoon.
Troops across the military services have long worn unofficial insignia, known as morale patches. Often boasting humorous themes, the patches are widely available for purchase online and in military supply stores. Though such patches are officially barred by uniform regulations, they can be approved by troops’ chains of command.
It was not clear Tuesday whether the “Make Aircrew Great Again” patches had been approved by the sailors’ commanders. It was also unclear where the sailors had obtained the patches.
Unit commanders are usually responsible for ensuring that the unofficial patches do not violate military regulations
On Twitter, former top military officers said the patches could be problematic because they could be interpreted as the military institution supporting a civilian politician.
“DOD has a longstanding policy of encouraging military personnel to carry out the obligations of citizenship,” an explanation of Pentagon regulations states. “However, [active-duty] members will not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel will avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.”
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in recent years has routinely reminded servicemembers that the military is an apolitical institution and their sworn oath is to the U.S. Constitution and not to a politician or political party. Additionally, troops are barred from publicly supporting any candidates for office – including the presidency – or conducting other political activity while in uniform, by the 1939 Hatch Act.
This is the second major controversy involving an official visit to a Navy vessel in a month. At the end of April, a TV reporter overheard the USS Harry S. Truman’s senior enlisted sailor instructing crewmen to “clap like we’re at a strip club” during a visit from Vice President Mike Pence. He eventually resigned from his post as a result. See Details: U.S. Navy Sailors ordered to ‘clap like we’re at a strip club’ for Vice-President Mike Pence
To be clear: twice in four weeks, Navy personnel have gotten themselves in hot water during extremely public events in easily-avoidable ways. In most sports, these screw-ups are called “unforced errors.” In the case of the Navy, the technical term is “embarrassing.” What a lame way to bookend the month.