Military Wife, Columnist Causes Controversy with Illegal Use of Uniform

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January 28 2004--As the wife of a Navy pilot, some might say Sarah Smiley should have known better. But when the syndicated columnist posed for a picture wearing a Navy Officers cover (or "hat"), she had no idea she was breaking a Federal law.

Smiley is the author of "Shore Duty," a weekly syndicated column for military spouses. For four months, her official headshot in Pensacola News Journal (Pensacola, FL) was one of the writer wearing a Navy Officer's hat.

Since it's debut in September 2003, Smiley received a few complaints about the photo -- mostly from people who claimed she was "disgracing the uniform" -- but it wasn't until a reader sent Smiley the contents of United States Code 10 (which makes it illegal for an unauthorized person to wear a military uniform) that the writer realized she had broken the law.

Smiley first addressed the issue of "the hat picture" (as fans now call it) in the January 13th installment of Shore Duty, which was before learning of USC 10. She wrote, when I agreed to the hat picture, it was in no way meant to disgrace the uniform.

In her column, Smiley also pointed out that girls wearing officers' covers is somewhat of a tradition. At the United States Naval Academy (of which Smiley's husband is a '97 graduate) there is a custom of midshipmen receiving a kiss from any girl who puts on their hat.

At the end of the January 13th column, Smiley invited her readers to sound-off about the hat and vote at her website (www.SarahSmiley.com) as to whether or not the hat picture should stay.

Smiley received a surprising influx of feedback and response from readers all over the country, even some not in her circulation areas. People in her community began shouting "keep the hat!" to her from across restaurants and out in public. More than 95% of the responses were in favor of the hat picture.

But it was during this surge of attention when Smiley received a message from a reader containing the contents of USC 10. This was no longer a philosophical debate for her fans...it was a matter of the law.

News of the "Hat Controversy" quickly circled the country in email chains, on message boards and in news reports.

"For many," says Smiley, "my hat picture became something more than just an issue of law. It became very personal for some as the two sides see the photo as a symbol of something they strongly believe in. My critics don't think it's 'right' for someone -- even a spouse -- to put on a piece of the uniform service members earn. My supporters (most of whom are servicemen, interestingly), however, think not only should it be legal for their spouse to affectionately wear the hat for a photo, after all they sacrifice and all they do as military spouse, it should be their privilege."

Smiley states no one is arguing the law. She agrees it is never appropriate for anyone to impersonate an officer or disgrace the service in any way. In fact, the writer is removing her photo and submitting a request to the Department of Defense for official permission to use the image. But the debate over "the hat" grew in to something more...something many readers can't let go or forget.

"Really," says Smiley, "the argument became more about this: do spouses serve and sacrifice alongside their service-member loved ones, even though they stay behind at home? Some critics were extremely hateful toward me, which I and my supporters feel diminishes all the things military spouses have earned for their part in the armed services. I can understand why someone might feel disgraced if a civilian wore the hat and mocked the service or if someone tried to impersonate an officer, but I can't understand why some became so angry over a military wife putting it on in a very affectionate way....and to advertise a pro-military column."

Many supporters claim Smiley's photo was reminiscent of an old fashioned era, bringing memories of WWII recruiting posters depicting women in men's uniforms saying things like, "Gee I wish I were a man and I'd join the US Navy."

Smiley's favorite interpretation of the picture, however, came from a Navy wife in Jacksonville, FL, who wrote:

"To me the hat symbolizes you being part of the Navy, 'for better or for worse.' You, me and anyone else who marries someone in the Navy also becomes part of the Navy. You don't inherit your husband's rank, but you do 'sign up,' so to speak. (New brides are warned of this, right? They are swatted on the rear end and one of the swordsmen says 'welcome to the Navy.') When I look at your picture, it represents your relationship with the Navy perfectly. Your husband's hat is balancing on your head (not pulled down tight) and you're wearing civilian clothes. It says to me 'This is part of me, I'm proud of it but it's not mine and it doesn't quite fit.' Which is the purpose of your column, balancing or managing your life as a mother & wife in the Navy."

The column and the photo have become what Smiley calls The Hat Heard Round the Country. In military cities everywhere, "the hat picture" sprung debates about the respect and honor showed toward military spouses.

At Military.com, debate over "the hat picture" was one of the hottest topics for nearly a week, and drove more than 200 visitors to Smiley's site in a matter of days.

"My intention," says Smiley, "has always been to speak out for military spouses, the ones serving on permanent 'Shore Duty.' If my mistake posing for that picture has caused more people to be aware of the needs and feelings of these men and women, then I can not regret it. I would not want to set an example of disregarding the law, however, so I'm removing the photo in light of USC 10."

Hat picture or no hat picture, Smiley says she plans to continue her work telling the story of military families.

Smileys column was created to offer support, laughter and advice for young military wives. She says this portion of the military population has been mostly overlooked as many military columns are written about the service, politics and other issues which dont speak directly to spouses.

I began Shore Duty because I couldnt find anything out there that was specifically for military wives about their lives and feelings. Being a military spouse is often lonely and challenging; the worst thing is to feel like youre the only one. I hear this all the time, spouses saying, I feel like Im the only one whos ever felt this way! With Shore Duty and SarahSmiley.com, my hope is that all military wives can find an outlet and a support network to assure them (usually in a humorous, lighthearted way) that the challenges of the military life are basically universal whether youre an Air Force wife living in Colorado, or a Navy wife living in Virginia.

SarahSmiley.com, besides being filled with amusing military stories and advice (such as The Dos and Don'ts of Overseas Care Packages), has also become an important resource for military families. Smiley receives regular emails from visitors who request information on such things as dealing with depression while a spouse is deployed, finding support groups, and finding information about military travel, health care and other things of interest to new military wives.

In a relatively short period of time, says Smiley, my website has become an invaluable resource for military spouses, and that has always been its purpose.

Tuesday January 27 will be the first day Smiley's column appears without the hat picture. Despite the controversy, Smiley says she is thankful this debate is causing people around the country to focus on issues that face military families.

It is calling to the forefront says Smiley, the fact that many military wives feel they serve alongside their spouse as they sacrifice in countless ways for the United States military. They may never earn the right to wear a uniform even for a picture but these men and women who support the men and women of the Armed Services certainly are important and worthy of great respect and honor. Not everyone is cut out to be a military spouse, and those who fill the role day in and day out deserve commendation.

Sarah Smiley is the the wife a Navy instructor pilot in Florida. Her column Shore Duty is syndicated nationally. It first debuted in JaxAirNews (the base paper of NAS Jacksonville) in January 2003. The column began in Pensacola News Journal September 2003, and was syndicated less than four months later.

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