Social media antics can ruin career, misrepresent military services
FORT LEE, Va. (March 6, 2014) -- Social media is very pervasive these days. As a new generation of Soldiers -- all well-versed in the various aspects of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter -- join the ranks, senior leaders across the installation are taking steps to ensure these troops realize the impact of their online chatter.
Col. Mary Beth Taylor, 23rd Quartermaster Brigade commander, and Col. Thomas Rivard, 59th Ordnance Brigade commander, both oversee organizations that are responsible for training and preparing thousands of Soldiers each year to move on to their first duty stations. Teaching the new troops about using social media responsibly is among their top priorities.
During the welcome brief at the Ordnance Campus, Rivard said his command team covers top issues with about 250 new Soldiers each week.
"I routinely discuss the use of social media and how their identity translates beyond just themselves to the entire U.S. Army," said Rivard. "This includes making videos while in uniform, naming videos after Army units or installations, etc. I make the distinction that we lack total freedom of speech while we wear our uniform.
"My guidance to them is that if they are identifying themselves as a Soldier -- regardless of on/off duty -- their post must not rise to PG-13, and never can be as bad or worse than a Miley Cyrus video/posting," he continued. "They fully understand this example, and most find it funny."
During Taylor's in-brief with new quartermasters, she said her command team talks about the lifelong impacts social media can have.
"At the brigade level, we emphasize that in this profession you need to be 'all in,'" said Taylor. "This is not a part-time job, even if you're a guard or reserve component Soldier. Once you don the uniform, you represent the U.S. Army … always.
"Anything you do to disgrace or discredit yourself has the same negative impact for the Army," she said. "We explain to our newly arrived Soldiers that they are ambassadors for the Army and our unit. Those of us in the military are bound by standards of conduct. We must maintain those standards once we raise our right hand and commit to service in support of our nation as a Soldier or member of the armed forces."
As smartphones with quick access to various social media sites become more prolific, it is much more common for new Soldiers to bring those devices with them to advanced individual training, unlike 10 years ago when flip phones were the norm. The ease of access makes it important for commanders to teach their troops how posting can have negative consequences, said Rivard.
"I tell the Soldiers that I don't look for their social media postings because all of America does this for me," he said. "If they post something offensive, someone will send it to a senior military leader, along with a description of why they are upset.
"The Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers who were recently suspended for posing with an empty casket (posted on Instagram by Spc. Terry Harrison, Instagram, 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment), and Pfc. Tariqka Sheffey (a quartermaster Soldier at Fort Carson, Colo.) who is being investigated following her post bragging about hiding in her car rather than saluting the flag are great examples of the possible consequences for a Soldier's career if their unprofessional social media posts come to the attention of their military supervisor," said Rivard. "Once we are aware of a problem, we locate the Soldier to have them remove the posting. We've used the Criminal Investigation Division to track down Soldiers who have moved on to their next duty station. If appropriate, we will subject the Soldier to Uniform Code of Military Justice punishment and possible administrative action. Although we haven't yet eliminated a Soldier from the Army for misuse of social media, it remains an option if the situation warrants this."
Remaining professional while on and off duty -- both online and off -- are important to maintaining Army standards, Taylor said.
"Because we always represent the Army, and we want our actions to always reflect the goodness of the Army and our profession," she said. "Any breakdown in self-discipline reflects the same of our Army. Once the public sees the breakdown, they wonder how wide-spread that particular act is throughout the Army, post or unit being represented. They also wonder where else we are breaking down.
"We all make mistakes," she continued. "I think it is important for leaders to do whatever they can to prevent the mistakes from happening by educating our Soldiers on the impact and consequences of actions."
It can be hard for new Soldiers to understand why their misuse of social media interests the Army at all, said Rivard.
"The fact is that it reflects poorly on their professionalism, and erodes the public's trust in the armed forces," he said. "Nobody would expect to see their doctor, attorney, politician or a police officer acting like a clown publicly. Whether our Soldiers realize it or not, that is the high regard the public holds of our profession. It wasn't always so, and a lot of Soldiers have worked for decades to build the public trust we currently enjoy.
"Some of the things our young Soldiers do on the Internet undermines that trust, and it's our obligation to make sure they understand that and modify their public behavior accordingly, both on social media as well as out in the community while not on duty," he continued. "Wearing the uniform is a privilege, one that was earned by millions of men and women who served over the last 238 years. None of us has the right to wear the uniform and then degrade the Armed Forces with an offensive video or statement in a public domain. I tell the Soldiers that it's OK to be young and have fun on the social media venues, but if you represent the U.S. Army, you have limits in regard to the content."