Fraternization in the United States Military

When Does Friendship Become a Crime?

Soldiers in love
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What is the main difference between a military couple, a military married couple, and a couple who are guilty of fraternization? The big distinction is NOT IN THE SAME CHAIN OF COMMAND. Military relationships occur in abundance. In fact, for instance, within the Army, the Married Army Couples Program (MACP) was established in the 1980s to help couples within the military handle their career and keep them at least together in the same state if possible, but avoid the same chain of command.

Fraternization is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It falls under a subparagraph of Article​​ 134, and is defined by the Manual For Courts-martial (MCM). According to the MCM, the "elements of proof" for the offense of fraternization are:

  1. That the accused was a commissioned or warrant officer;
  2. That the accused fraternized on terms of military equality with one or more certain enlisted member(s) in a certain manner;
  3. That the accused then knew the person(s) to be (an) enlisted member(s);
  4. That such fraternization violated the custom of the accused's service that officers shall not fraternize with enlisted members on terms of military equality; and
  5. That, under the circumstances, the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.

    The MCM goes on to offer further explanation of the offense:

    In general. The gist of this offense is a violation of the custom of the armed forces against fraternization. Not all contact or association between officers and enlisted persons is an offense. Whether the contact or association in question is an offense depends on the surrounding circumstances. Factors to be considered include whether the conduct has compromised the chain of command, resulted in the appearance of partiality, or otherwise undermined good order, discipline, authority, or morale. The acts and circumstances must be such as to lead a reasonable person experienced in the problems of military leadership to conclude that the good order and discipline of the armed forces has been prejudiced by their tendency to compromise the respect of enlisted persons for the professionalism, integrity, and obligations of an officer.

    Regulations. Regulations, directives, and orders may also govern conduct between officer and enlisted personnel on both a service-wide and a local basis. Relationships between enlisted persons of different ranks, or between officers of different ranks may be similarly covered. Violations of such regulations, directives, or orders may be punishable under Article 92.

    Problems with Using the UCMJ

    Unfortunately, there were a couple of problems using the UCMJ/MCM as a basis of charges. First and foremost, the UCMJ/MCM only makes fraternization a crime for commissioned and warrant officers. Under the provisions of article 134, enlisted members could not be charged with this crime. While they could be charged under service regulations, each of the services had different and wide-ranging policies and definitions as to what constituted an "inappropriate relationship." Additionally, the explanation of what is and is not allowed is not specifically spelled out in the MCM/UCMJ.

    In July 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen directed the services to "adopt uniform, clear and readily understandable" fraternization policies. Cohen stated that the current separate policies were "corrosive to morale particularly as we move toward an increasingly joint environment."

    The services submitted policy changes to Cohen that he approved Feb. 3, 1999. All of the new policies have been implemented in the respective service regulations. Now, while each of the services still have individual policies, they all share common standards with respect to relationships between officers and enlisted personnel, recruiters and potential recruits and trainers and trainees.

    The Army fraternization policy required many changes and the most toughening. Navy and Air Force policies required little change. Marine Corps policy required no change.​

    All the services prohibit personal and business relationships between officers and enlisted members, calling them prejudicial to good order and discipline. Personal relationships include dating, cohabitation, and any sexual relationship. Business relationships include loaning and borrowing money and business partnerships.

    Following is a breakdown of the individual service policies, including each service's definition of fraternization and examples of prohibited relationships.

    • Army Fraternization Policies
    • Air Force Fraternization Policies
    • Navy Fraternization Policies
    • Marine Corps Fraternization Policies
    • Coast Guard Fraternization Policies

    Recently, female Sergeant Remedios Cruz, who was a ground breaking Marine to complete the grueling Marine infantry training, was demoted and kicked out of the Marine Corps for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate within her immediate chain of command. There are many Marine couples, as well as throughout the military branches, but the underlying / no grey area is when this relationship occurs within the chain of command of both members.

    Types of relationships that are acceptable between officer and enlisted occur typically between combat arms or other type of military occupational specialty OUTSIDE of the same command. For instance, there are officer / enlisted relationships within the military that one of the members is a Navy Diver and the other is a Navy Pilot either as higher / lower ranking officers or enlisted.

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