Am I guilty of Fraternization?
Fraternization refers to prohibited personal relationships between service members. It can sometimes be confusing to what constitutes a prohibited relationship. The military services in the last couple of decades have updated their policies to be stricter. The services not only aim to prohibit improper relationships, but also prevent the appearance of such relationships because of their impact on unit morale and team cohesion.
What is fraternization?
In looking to define fraternization, the military says fraternization is an improper relationship between Soldiers of different ranks. It could be romantic or merely a friendship. Whether an officer is dating or starting a business an enlisted person, both create the appearance of favoritism and can have an impact on good order and discipline. Where it gets confusing is whether service members are considered fraternizing if they attend a ball game or a picnic together as a unit. It is outside of the workplace. What’s the difference if two people go to the ballgame together and not with the whole team? One is a team-building event and the other is a personal relationship building.
The military outlines the specific ranks that constitute fraternization. Certainly, two Staff Sgts can attend a ballgame together. However, a SSG and an E-4 Specialist cannot because this gives the appearance of special favors. The fraternization meaning comes into play when superior-subordinate relationships become personal relationships.
There are a few exceptions to this. For instance, if two enlisted persons are married, and then one is selected for commission, they would be an exception to the policy. Also, if a guardsman has a relationship with a subordinate due to their civilian jobs. A caveat to this would be if the relationship, although falling into one of these exceptions, degrades good order and discipline among the unit.
Can I be charged with fraternization?
Charges of Fraternization usually take the form of UMCJ Article 134 or UCMJ Article 92 violations. Why Article 134 for Fraternization? The elements of Article 134 are “for offenses alleging disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline.” If team members think others are getting preferential treatment because of a personal relationship, that degrades trust among the unit members. Improper relationships are harmful to good order and discipline because it degrades trust among the members of a unit. Why Article 92? Article 92 is the failure to obey an order or regulation. Dating or having an otherwise personal relationship with a subordinate is against regulation so therefore it is disobeying orders. Additionally, what commanders often do in these circumstances is, if they don’t have proof of a relationship, they may issue a no-contact order to the suspect. When that individual violates that no contact order, then the commander can punish the individual without having the proof of the improper relationship.
Penalties for fraternization
To be clear, there can be criminal charges, but they likely don’t result in court-martial. Also violations of this sort only result in criminal charges brought against an officer based on the elements of fraternization set forth in the Manual:
- The accused was a commissioned or warrant officer;
- The accused fraternized on terms of military equality with one or more certain enlisted members in a certain manner;
- The accused then knew the person(s) to be (an) enlisted member(s);
- The fraternization violated the custom of the accused’s service that officers shall not fraternize with enlisted members on terms of military equality; and
- 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 military adjudicates violations of this nature by enlisted and officers alike with Non-judicial punishment, general officer memoranda of reprimands, or GOMORs, and possibly administrative separation. The danger here lies in the risk of losing an expected promotion, being separated involuntarily, and possibly having a general or OTH discharge. Having a punitive discharge means limited or no veterans’ benefits.
Do I have a defense to accusations of fraternization?
There are some defenses an experienced attorney can use to defend someone accused of fraternization: The allegations could have resulted from a false accusation. Also, the command may not be able to prove that the chain of command or morale was compromised. As well, if the accused can prove they are married to the person they are accused of having an improper relationship with, that could be a strong defense. However, getting married to escape charges is not a defense. The accused could also show proof that alleged fraternization was under the auspices of official duty.