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Rules of engagement set for political participation

SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- Political freedom is something the military has defended since the founding of the United States.

But, while free to participate in the political process, there are some rules military members need to know.

"Our main job is to follow the orders that come down our chain of command, which has an elected official at the top," said Maj. Frank Minogue, chief of civil law for Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

"It would undermine our whole command structure if it appeared that the Air Force was supporting one side, or candidate, over another," Major Minogue said.

The November 2006 elections are fast approaching and will decide all 435 House of Representative seats, 33 of the 100 Senate seats and 36 state governors, along with numerous other state and local elections across the country.

It is vital that military members do not give the perception that the military supports one political party, issue or candidate over another, Major Minogue said.

Political activity rules are listed in Air Force Instruction 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force. Violators of this instruction can be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and receive up to two years confinement and a dishonorable discharge, the major said.

Examples of prohibited activities listed in the instruction include attending a political event in uniform, using official authority to interfere with an election and affect its course or outcome, and using contemptuous words against officials in public office. Military members are allowed to attend political events in civilian clothes but only as a spectator. Speaking publicly at these events is not allowed in or out of uniform.

There also is a separation in the rules about participating in partisan and nonpartisan political activities. The rules tend to be stricter for partisan politics, the instruction states.

Partisan politics are defined in the instruction as an "activity supporting or relating to candidates who represent, or issues specifically identified with, national or state political parties or associated or ancillary organizations. A candidacy, declared or undeclared, for national or state office is a partisan political activity, even if the candidate is not affiliated with a national or state political party."

Partisan politics generally refer to established political parties and political positions on the national scale.

These rules are not in place to restrict a military member's political freedoms, the major said.

"Obviously we want people to vote and express their opinions," Major Minogue said. "People are encouraged to participate in the political process, just not as representatives of the Air Force."

It is crucial that Airmen remain neutral, said Richard Peterson, deputy chief of the administrative law division, in the office of the Air Force judge advocate general.

"Regardless of whom the American public chooses, we give our elected officials our best efforts and support in performing our duties," Mr. Peterson said.

Contact the local legal office for more information about the instruction.