Some veterans say military restricts free speech

Amy Horst

When Sharon Haller enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, she traveled across the world representing her base on a volleyball team, and trained to become an air traffic controller.

But Haller, a program associate at the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning Services, said she felt she could not speak freely while serving in the Persian Gulf War as a top-secret cryptographer.

Haller is one of many veterans who said they felt discouraged from questioning the U.S. government while on duty.

“There is definitely a structure of hierarchy in which, under disciplinary codes, you are not supposed to question your commander in chief and your superiors,” Haller said.

Haller said she became active in the peace movement after she returned home largely because of her military experiences.

“They don’t want you to question the policy because it’s psychological,” Haller said. “If the soldiers start to question the policy, they’re not going to kill on command.”

Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said the only speech restrictions placed on soldiers relate to national security, and soldiers who disagree with certain orders or policies have recourse.

“You don’t question (your superiors) openly, but there are ways you can disagree with them or can question a particular direction or order you are given,” Shavers said. “You can talk to the next person in your chain of command and you can express your concern there.”

He said officers who disagree with the military can decide not to be officers or seek to be discharged.

Jessica Swedin, a 2001 University alumna and assistant scientist at the University’s Cancer Center, said soldiers in Iraq have been told not to write federal and state lawmakers.

Swedin’s husband Jonathan is a sergeant in the Minnesota Army National Guard and is returning from Iraq this week.

Members of her husband’s base learned in a daily briefing they should not contact anyone outside their command chain, she said. The order came in response to a soldier who she said contacted the press and his congressional representative.

Commanding officers reprimanded that soldier, Swedin said.

But Shavers said no such policy exists.

“They absolutely are allowed to write to their congressman,” he said.

When the military restricts its members, it is because the military is politically neutral, said Kristin Frazer, a University military science professor and a ROTC reserve officer. For instance, service people should not attend rallies in uniform, she said.

But she said soldiers are encouraged to vote and can display yard signs.

During the Korean War, soldiers were not allowed to write to their congressional representatives, said Wayne Wittman, a University alumnus who served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps.

“When you’re on active duty, you’re very restricted in terms of what you can do and say,” Wittman said. “People were told to forget this ever happened, forget that you were told to do things that were illegal.”

The situation was similar during the Vietnam War, said Joseph Johnson, a University alumnus who served one Navy tour of duty in 1967.

“If they tell you to shoot a civilian, and you think it’s wrong, you’re under military law – you have to do it,” Johnson said.

He said possible punishment included rank reduction, prison time or withholding pay.

Ron Krebs, a University political science professor, said the military has changed greatly since it became a volunteer force in 1973, and the military has imposed few restrictions on what journalists can report on the current Iraqi crisis.