Veterans join the ranks of Occupy Seattle activists in downtown Seattle on Oct. 29. (Jon Anderson / Staff)
Military regulations say troops are free to attend protests and other political rallies as long as they’re not:
On military property.
Disrespectful of the chain of command.
Attending where violence is likely.
Outside the U.S.
Advocating supremacist ideology.
The sergeant kneels down and scrawls the words "I'm a Vet" on a rough piece of cardboard before adding, "Shoot me next."
Wearing his full uniform, with a Combat Infantryman Badge on his chest and a 75th Ranger Regiment patch on his right shoulder, he's already drawing attention in downtown Seattle's Westlake Park in the heart of the city's shopping district as other protesters come up to shake his hand and pose for photos with him.
"I'm here to show my support for Scott Olsen," he said of the Marine and Iraq veteran who was injured when police fired tear gas canisters at Occupy Oakland protesters in California. "If the police want someone else to shoot at, here I am."
The sergeant, who didn't want to give his name, said he was discharged from nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord just a few weeks ago. He's wearing his uniform to draw attention to the fact that troops are coming home from war and service to their country, only to struggle to find jobs.
His uniform, however, could draw less welcome attention — and he seems to know it. He's placed green tape over the embroidered name tag.
Military officials said troops are free to participate in Occupy rallies but are prohibited from wearing their uniforms or presenting themselves as official spokespeople for the military.
That goes for those who have been discharged from active duty or drilling Reserve units but are still in the Individual Ready Reserve. All service members incur an eight-year obligation to the military — regardless of contract length — and are subject to involuntary recall from the IRR at any time during that period.
While it's rare for veterans in IRR status to be charged for violating uniform rules, it's not unheard of.
In 2007, former Marine corporal and Iraq War veteran Adam Kokesh was charged with misconduct under the Uniform Code of Military Justice after he was seen in uniform at a rally in Washington, D.C., protesting the war. Kokesh had been honorably discharged days earlier but was eventually handed a general discharge as punishment.
Defense Department Directive 1325.6 states: "Service member's right of expression should be preserved to the maximum extent possible," but adds: "No commander should be indifferent to conduct that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, would destroy the effectiveness of his or her unit."
What soldiers do in their free time is up to them "as long as they don't do it in uniform or purport to represent the military," said Army spokesman Troy Rolan. "If they want to go to a rally, they are more than welcome to go."
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller said there are no rules against providing your name, rank or status as a service member, but he recommends against it.
"It's just a common-sense approach," he said. "It's a slippery slope before you sound like you're speaking for the government."
Navy spokesman Lt. Matt Allen added: "Sailors should understand that participation could place them at greater risk for violating laws, codes or ordinances. The implications of this could have impacts on their naval career."
Even when they aren't technically breaking any rules, troops can find themselves facing repercussions, legal experts said.
"Commanders can sometimes get a little overzealous when they see someone at a protest on TV that they don't like," said Kathleen Gilberd, executive director of the Military Law Task Force, a San Diego-based advocacy group. "The rights are pretty clear, so often what happens is commands will informally harass them."
Troops should be especially wary of attending protests where violence is likely, she said.
"The regulations say you shouldn't go to a demonstration where violence or a ‘breach of the peace' is likely to occur. But that's pretty vague," Gilberd said.
And commanders shouldn't use that rule as a catchall to keep troops from attending rallies they don't like.
"They can't just say ‘don't go there' because they think something might happen," Gilberd said.