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Military: Army personnel violated Pentagon directive by attending McCain event

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain posed for a photo with Sergeant 1st Class Chad Kozdra at a 'No Surrender' rally held at the Londonderry American Legion Post 27 in Londonderry, N.H. Sept. 14.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain posed for a photo with Sergeant 1st Class Chad Kozdra at a "No Surrender" rally held at the Londonderry American Legion Post 27 in Londonderry, N.H. Sept. 14. (AP Photo)

MANCHESTER, N.H. --Seven on-duty Army personnel participated in a campaign event for Senator John McCain earlier this month in Londonderry, New Hampshire, in an apparent violation of a Pentagon directive against partisan political activity, two military officials confirmed this week.

The September 14 rally at an American Legion hall was part of McCain's "No Surrender" tour of early-primary states, a martial pageant designed to draw attention to the Arizona Republican's continued support for the war in Iraq. Seven personnel from a Manchester, New Hampshire, recruiting station appeared in uniform and briefly addressed the crowd.

A Department of Defense directive signed in August 2004 by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz prohibits on-duty members of the armed forces from "speak[ing] before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause."

In addition, on-duty military personnel are forbidden from attending any political event in uniform except the national party conventions.

After introducing other dignitaries and before giving his defense of General David Petraeus and the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, McCain handed a microphone to each of the seven soldiers — all wearing fatigues and berets — who introduced themselves by name, rank, and, in some cases, a description of their prior service elsewhere.

The Army personnel then stood alongside McCain in front of approximately 75 attendees. The campaign had advertised the midday event as a "barbecue," and served hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and soda.

"Thanks guys for being here," McCain said. We're honored by your presence and your service."

A Pentagon official did not dispute that the 2004 directive would apply in this instance.

"Department of Defense maintains a long-standing policy that DoD personnel acting in their official capacity may not be engaged in activities that associate DoD with any partisan political campaign or election, candidate, cause or issue," Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington wrote in a statement.

In a brief interview after the event, Seargeant First Class Chad Kozdra, the commanding officer at the recruiting station, said he had been approached days earlier about participating in the event by the McCain campaign. He said he supported McCain and had also done so in 2000.

"What they were told is that this was a support-the-troops barbeque," not a campaign appearance, said Paul Boyce, a U.S. Army public-affairs officer.

In April, an individual identifying himself as Kozdra wrote in a posting on the Myspace web site, "I believe that John McCain would make a good President not for his past military history but for his record in Congress."

"They weren't there to support a political campaign," said McCain spokeswoman Crystal Benton. "We don't believe anyone intended an infraction of DoD policy. Nor do we believe soldiers should be prevented from showing their support for fellow soldiers."

But a leading specialist in military law said they believed it was a clear violation.

"It was obviously a political event," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "Military personnel should not be participating."

During a campaign season taking place amid a contentious national debate over a controversial war, there have been other high-profile cases of those in uniform drawing attention for their political activities. In June, a Marine reservist received what an official described at the time as a "nonpunitive discharge" for participating in an antiwar demonstration.

Boyce said the Army has taken no disciplinary action against the seven personnel who appeared at McCain's event in Londonderry.

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