Most soldiers use social media properly, but enlisted leaders need more tools to instruct, inform and potentially punish those who don't, noncommissioned officers told the service's top enlisted man at a recent conference.

Among the recommendations generated during the NCO Solarium II event, held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, late last month: A section in the Army's conduct policy devoted specifically to online behavior, an "Online Misconduct Statement of Understanding" that would be signed by every soldier, and education efforts that would reach as far down as the Soldier's Blue Book, handed out at Initial Entry Training.

But those moves and others won't help much unless younger soldiers understand why some types of online antics they may have engaged in before entering service aren't appropriate for members of their profession, one of the Solarium participants said.

"Nothing is going to happen unless a soldier buys into it," said Sgt. 1st Class Turon Logan, senior small group leader at the Army Medical Department Noncommissioned Officers Academy on Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, and a 22-year active-duty soldier. "Those behaviors, as far as hazing, Internet bullying, inappropriate jokes and remarks and making disparaging comments about the nation's leaders, that's a part of their [online] culture. And if we're trying to change that culture, we have to have some buy-in to it. You can't just arbitrarily say, 'You will do this because I told you.'"

Buy-in works both directions, Logan said, with senior leaders needing to understand social media well enough to monitor their soldiers' activities, even if they don't participate themselves. He gave the example of creating a Facebook page at the small-unit level, which soldiers could join and leaders could monitor without entering the fray.

More advice for leaders came from Pennsylvania Army National Guard First Sgt. Aaron Leisenring: "Facebook is an extension of the barracks." A version of that statement was repeated by nearly all Solarium participants interviewed by Army Times, including Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey.

"We used to go to the barracks and check on the soldiers," Dailey said. "It was the social hub. It's where soldiers lived. It was the nucleus. Of course, that's still true, but there's also Facebook now. You have to be in there."

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Hull, a Solarium participant representing 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command out of Aberdeen, Maryland, said the issue "hasn't really been touched by the military the way it should be" and that soldiers must be made more aware of the consequences their online actions could have.

"You've got junior people who have grown up in a social media environment, being able to voice their opinion about anything," Hull said. "It can be outlandish, it can just have been a rant, the same way you would decompress with one of your friends. … The only problem is, when they decompress, the whole world's going to see it."

Dailey called it a "tough subject," and NCOs had plenty of reasons why:

  • Soldiers of all ranks "are unaware of policies, definition, reporting process, and potential adverse action," according to Solarium presentation materials provided to Army Times. These materials, which included the recommendations stemming from the conference, were stamped "predecisional."
  • Officers and NCOs may be wary of wading too deep into the social media pool, with soldiers expressing privacy concerns and leaders worried about fraternization. Conference attendees debated what "friending" a fellow soldier on Facebook truly means.
  • While the presentation suggested reinforcing the "Soldier 24/7" approach to encourage proper online behavior, that may fall short outside the active-duty ranks. Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Torres, an Active Guard and Reserve member at Army Reserve Command headquarters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said a reservist questioned about his or her posts "will say, ‘Well, I’m not an active-duty soldier, so I’m not on the clock.’ And then you try to engage them with it, and they don’t get it."

Soldiers must understand that regardless of the arena, they will be held accountable for their actions, Dailey said.

"Everyone knows what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. They know the standard, online or in person," he said. "The difference is there's a sense you feel when you do it online that there may not be any retribution."

Staff writer Michelle Tan contributed to this report.