Almost as quickly as it infiltrated your newsfeed, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos (#IceBucketChallenge) have seemingly disappeared. For military folks, at least, the challenge itself received a proverbial cold bucket of water when the Department of Defense issued a policy reminder at the end of August that service members were not permitted to either wear their uniform or mention their branch of service while participating in the challenge. Otherwise, doing so would constitute endorsement of a private organization, which is a violation of appropriate ethical conduct for service members, as per the Office of General Counsel (OCG) Standards of Conduct Office.
“[The] ALS Association is a national non-profit organization,” wrote Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian in a policy memo about the ALS Association, a group that supports research for the nerve cell disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “As such, participating in this event is subject to concerns about implied endorsement.”
Online grumblings throughout social media claimed this memo smacked of hypocrisy, given that DoD leadership regularly attends private organization events as key note speakers, to include Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey at a ThanksUSA Gala and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Rosemary Freitas Williams at the American Military Partner Association’s inaugural gala. Despite said grumblings, posted videos of service members in uniform, including one of the Air Force’s Blue Angels in their flight suits, quickly disappeared presumably for fear of reprisal.
Service members should not have been surprised by the issued memo. News coverage regularly features uniformed service members participating in a public protest or activist event, resulting in public outcry. Typically, though, the service members who participate in such events are no longer active duty, but rather who have been discharged from the military and are now private civilians in the Individual Ready Reserve. In one notorious case, one such member of the IRR, former Marine Adam Kokesh attended an anti-war protest in Washington, DC, in 2007. Having received an honorable discharge only days beforehand, Kokesh ultimately received a general discharge as a result of wearing his uniform to the rally.
What was surprising about the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” though, was the overwhelming support that the challenge received from individual military leaders who challenged their own troops and fellow leaders to participate. Major General Tim Orr, Adjutant General of the Iowa National Guard, for one example, challenged all adjutant generals across the US to the challenge. Both US Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Ted Carter and Midshipman Captain Bill Byrne, for another, participated in the challenge and challenged their sister school counterparts to participate also. The coaches of both the Navy and Air Force football teams also participated in the challenge in uniform, as did the entire Navy football team. So far no known formal reprisals have been issued; however, both disparaging remarks about the challenge itself and additional prohibitions of participation in the challenge have surfaced.
One of the more disparaging remarks made of the popularity of the challenge is that of decrying its participants as “slacktivists.” Slacktivism is the replacement of actual activist work or donations in favor of raising awareness of a cause through social media sharing, which does not require spending either a significant amount of effort or money. However, by sharing information—in this case a video—the slacktivist still garners the positive benefit of feeling as if he or she has contributed and made a difference. In the case of the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” the contribution yields additional awareness of the disease, ALS, as well as donations. The ALS Association reported that the challenge itself raised over $100 million for their cause.
Not alone in its prohibition of members in an official capacity participating in the challenge, the DoD is accompanied by other large governmental agencies, including the State Department and the House of Representatives. As with the DoD, in each case the participating member may not use his government role to further the goal of a private organization, regardless of the well-intention of the charity. However, as with service members who are entirely free to participate in the challenge provided they wear something other than any of their uniforms and do not mention their branch of service, other government officials who participate in such an event as a private citizen may similarly freely participate.
Other organizations, meanwhile, do not approve of members participating in the challenge in any capacity for moral reasons. These organizations include the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Roman Catholic Church, and the American Life League, all of whom do not support the challenge as the organization behind the challenge uses its funding for embryonic stem cell research. The unofficial “drought shaming” movement in drought-stricken California (#droughtshaming), meanwhile has its own moral concerns, claiming that over 6 million gallons of water have been wasted during the course of the challenge.