Inside a hearing room on Camp Pendleton last week, Sgt. Gary Stein was stunned when the prosecution showed him a key piece evidence against him: a blown up campaign poster of President Barack Obama, the word “DICK” underneath his face.
There was an asterisk next to the word: “*ACCORDING TO MSNBC’S MARK HALPERIN,” the poster read.
It was a surreal moment in the history of military justice.
Stein, a 26 year old Marine Corps sergeant, is at the heart of controversy engulfing America’s Armed Forces during this hotly contested election year. At issue: just how much are our men and women in uniform allowed to say? A Marine Corps panel last week at Camp Pendleton, a base near San Diego, California, declared that Stein was violating “good order and discipline” for going beyond political activity allowed by the Pentagon, and sent a clear signal to the troops that it’s better to keep your mouth shut.
“A lot of this comes down to political correctness among the leadership,” Stein told BuzzFeed today in an exclusive interview. “They don’t want the President to think the Marine Corps is anti-Obama.”
The firestorm began in March after anti-Obama comments Stein wrote on a private Facebook discussion group were picked up by the media, including calling Obama a “traitor,” a “Domestic Enemy”, and questioning a possible military intervention in Syria.
“I hit some chords of the people higher up, [that made people think] I’m trying to start a military coup, a military uprising,” said Stein, who lives in nearby Temecula. “A lot of liberal bloggers and even conservative people have come out and said this is going to start a military coup. I don’t believe in violence. Violence only undermines the Tea Party movement.”
Stein, who wears his hair shaved bald to buzz cut, was shocked at the response from his Marine superiors. He’d been running the Armed Forces Tea Party page, as one of five administrators, for almost two years, and he’d never had a problem before. “They told me to put a disclaimer up, saying the views expressed did not represent the Defense Department or the Marine Corps,” Stein said. “I did.”
Now, Stein faces an “other than honorable discharge,” a ruling handed down to him from a panel of three high ranking officers. Stein has assembled a team of lawyers — one of his lawyers is from the American Civil Liberties Union , another is involved in Tea Party causes — and he’s preparing to turn the fight to keep his job into a broader battle. On Friday, Stein’s legal team will file suit federal court, charging the Marine Corps of violating Stein’s first amendment rights. “I see it as a free speech issue,” Stein said.
Stein has served 9 years in the Marines, with one tour of duty in Iraq. He is four months away from leaving with his full benefits, and he was planning on enlisting for another year. The Tea Partier is married, has a four year old child, and claims to have never had any prior discipline problems. He’s now been ordered to take a class to “transition” out of the Marines, even though the official verdict hasn’t been signed off on. “There’s not good charge, nothing has been signed, and I got rushed over to medical clinic to do urine and blood tests already, and they threw me in these classes.”
Now his benefits are on the line, and possibly making his nine years service go to waste. Stein said he didn’t want it to come to this. “I offered to take down the page, to shut up, and have my honorable discharge in July,” he said. “We offered it three different times. They denied it.” (Marine Corps public affairs in San Diego did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.)
Stein thinks he’s been treated unfairly, pointing to a list of soldiers and Marines who’d pushed the political line even further: one who showed up in uniform to a Ron Paul rally, another who denounced America’s wars on Al Jazeera, and the “favoritism” given to a number of high ranking general officers who have bitterly criticized President Obama yet been allowed to retire with full benefits and a pension, like Gen. James Conway and Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
“It becomes political,” Stein said about the handling of his case. “Their careers are on the line, if you’re on a officer, a lieutenant colonel or colonel. It could be looked on badly on your next promotion, ‘He didn’t take care of the Gary Stein issue.’”
“They printed out two posters, one had Obama’s face on there and it said 'dick,'” Stein said. “The other was President Obama’s face on movie poster for 'Jackass'.” But Stein hadn’t created either of those — he says Rush Limbaugh made one of them — and that one of the four other administrators posted it. But Stein has chosen to fight the issue not as a technicality but as a matter of principle: “I feel as an American citizen, it’s my right to [speak freely,] doing it as Gary Stein, the American.”