Marine sergeant discharged for criticizing Obama: Was that fair?

Troops may express political opinions and are encouraged 'to carry out the obligations of citizenship,' but Marine Sgt. Gary Stein was warned that his Facebook posts crossed a line.

Gregory Bull/AP
Marine Sgt. Gary Stein pauses while speaking with reporters in front of the federal court building on Friday, April 13, 2012, in San Diego.

The other-than-honorable discharge given to Marine Sgt. Gary Stein for writing “Screw Obama” and other criticisms of the president on Facebook means he will lose all of his military privileges, including access to military health care and education benefits, as well as the right to shop in the tax-free grocery and department stores on base.

Is this a fair punishment for a Marine who has served in the military for nine years – a tenure which also included a tour in Iraq during the particularly violent years of 2005 to 2006? Some service members who have been found to have deserted have received “general” discharges, after all.

The problem, analysts say, is that Sgt. Stein was warned repeatedly about his Facebook posts. Troops are encouraged “to carry out the obligations of citizenship,” and are allowed to express “a personal opinion on political candidates and issues.” They can also put political bumper stickers on their cars, sign petitions, donate to political parties, and attend rallies, debates, and conventions.

They cannot, however, take part in any political activities as official representatives of the US military.

For his actions, Stein, who also wrote that he would refuse to follow President Obama’s orders, was not court-martialed. He could have been given a “general” discharge. Though this may sound fine to many civilian ears, it also carries with it negative intimations and is quite different from the “honorable” discharge that the majority of troops get.

General discharges may, for example, be given when “significant negative aspects” of a US military member’s conduct outweigh the positive contributions during his service. This could also affect the ability of troops to use their GI Bill and other benefits.

An other-than-honorable discharge is reserved for those who have significantly deviated from conduct expected of a US military member. This might include serious violence against innocents, ignoring orders, or endangering the safety of others.

Troops who have been less-than-honorably discharged are not allowed to keep their uniforms. They may also have to give back any reenlistment bonuses they received. Stein may still be able to take advantage of Veterans Administration benefits, depending on what VA officials decide. Generally, they tend to decide against providing such benefits to deserters, conscientious objectors who refuse to perform military duties, or those who engage in persistent misconduct.

There is little doubt that Stein crossed the line of good conduct, says Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “He has clearly done things here that make it impossible for him to serve on active duty,” he says. “The substance of what he’s said is truly intolerable.”

Stein, for his part, has argued that his mistreatment has been unfair. “I think they’re trying to use me as an example,” Stein told MSNBC. “Senior officers don’t want to hear, ‘You were the person who let this Gary Stein situation get out of hand.’ ”

That said, Stein says he would apologize to the president if given the chance. “If he was in front of me right now, I would salute him, say, ‘Yes, Mr. President, No, Mr. President,’ ” Stein said. “I would still disagree with his policies, but those are two separate things.”

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