Ethical Obligations of Service Members: What Are the Rules?

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. 

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.

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:

  1. You cannot accept a gift based on your official position; and
  2. You cannot accept a gift from a prohibited source.

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:

  • Modest items of food and refreshments (such as coffee and donuts)
  • Greeting cards and items with little value (such as plaques, certificates or trophies)
  • Commercial discounts available to the public or to all government personnel
  • Prizes in contests open to the public
  • Items with a market value of $20 or less
  • Items which are clearly given based on a personal relationship

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.

Political Activity

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:

  • Voting and encouraging others to register to vote
  • Signing petitions
  • Donating to candidates or causes
  • Displaying political bumper stickers on private vehicles
  • Attending political events (but only as spectators and not in uniform)
  • Running for political office (Reservists or National Guard only)

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:

  • Participating in political fundraising activities
  • Using official authority or influence to interfere with an election or solicit votes
  • Speaking before a partisan political gathering
  • Marching or riding in a partisan political parade
  • Publicly displaying partisan political signs at a residence on a military installation

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.

Additional Resources

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.

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