All branches of the U.S. military have rules regarding friendships, business associations, dating, and marriage among service members of different ranks and positions. Not all contact between officers and their subordinates is prohibited, and the goal is not to dissuade service members from having interpersonal relationships. Rather, the regulations are intended to prevent compromising order, discipline, and the chain of command.
What is Fraternization in the Military?
The literal meaning of fraternization is “to turn people into brothers.” It describes a situation where unrelated people of different classes have social interactions as though they were family members, close friends, or lovers. In the military and other contexts, the term fraternization connotes irregular, unprofessional, improper, or imprudent behavior.
In the military, officers and members of enlisted ranks are prohibited from having certain personal interactions outside of their professional duties and orders. It’s of no consequence whether the parties involved are in a direct line of command. Fraternization between service members of different grades, between trainees and enlisted members, and between recruiters and recruits is also prohibited.
Examples of Fraternizing
Relationships don’t have to be romantic in nature to be forbidden. Examples of fraternizing include:
- Going to one another’s private homes
- Getting a drink together at a bar
- Showing favoritism
- Gambling or borrowing money from one another
- Having ongoing business relationships
- Going on dates
- Sharing living accommodations (other than those necessary to conduct military operations)
- Having sexual interactions
That being said, some degree of group socialization and team building is encouraged in the military. The key is for officers and enlisted service members to build a coherent, trusting team, not one-on-one relationships.
Why is Fraternization Prohibited?
Rules against fraternizing in the military are intended to prevent inappropriate relationships between higher-ranking personnel and those they oversee. The ultimate goals are to:
- Maintain order and discipline within a unit
- Maintain the integrity of supervisory authority within the chain of command
- Maintain the unit’s ability to accomplish its mission
- Prevent unfair treatment and the appearance of unfair treatment between an officer and their subordinates
- Prevent the improper use of rank or position for personal gain
- Prevent spreading military secrets to enemies
Marriage in the Military
Service members are allowed to marry, but they’re still held accountable if improper fraternization leads to the marriage. Then, the marriage of two enlisted members of different ranks could constitute fraternization if the union compromises their duties. In addition, it’s acceptable for two enlisted members of the same rank to get married and for one of them to be promoted. When this happens, the couple should not be put in a direct line of command to avoid compromising their duties.
Other Circumstances and Exemptions
The following relationships are permitted in the military and not considered fraternization:
- Dating between enlisted members of the same rank
- Dating between enlisted members and civilian employees or government contractors
- Marriage between an officer and enlisted service member if they married before joining the service
- Landlord-tenant relationships or one-time transactions between enlisted service members
- Ongoing business or personal relationships based on civilian jobs for officers and service members in the Reserves or National Guard
Be aware that even these permitted relationships could become prohibited if they directly affect morale, discipline, respect for authority, or the ability to carry out a mission.
When is Fraternization Charged as a Crime?
The military has recognized fraternization as a punishable offense since 1984. Originally, each branch had its own set of rules, but the Department of Defense issued a uniform policy for all branches to follow in 1999. The policy stated under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) has been updated several times to better define acceptable and unacceptable relationships.
The act of fraternizing becomes a criminal offense under Article 134 when the conduct “has compromised the chain of command, resulted in the appearance of partiality, or otherwise undermined good order, discipline, authority, or morale.” The senior-ranking officer may have more power to discontinue behaviors that breach policy, but both parties are considered equally responsible.
Charges can only be brought against the accused if all of the following elements apply:
- 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 knew the person they fraternized with was an enlisted member.
- The fraternization violated the custom of the accused’s service that officers shall not fraternize with enlisted members on terms of military equality.
- 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.
Maximum Penalties for Fraternization
The punishment for fraternization in the military varies based on the severity of the incident and its impact on order, discipline, and the chain of command. Note that most offenses do not lead to a court-martial.
Minor issues may result in an administrative corrective measure, such as:
- Verbal or written reprimand
- Order to cease
- Reassignment for one or both service members involved
More Serious Offenses
For more serious matters, the accused may face non-judicial punishment (NJP), also known as Article 15. This is not an official trial but an inquiry into the facts, giving the accused the right to a hearing.
Article 15 punishments may include:
- 30-day suspension from duty
- 50% decrease in pay for two months
- Confinement in quarters for 30 days
- Extra duties or additional limits at the commanding officer’s discretion
In cases where more serious circumstances are involved, a fraternization charge may result in a court-martial. The maximum punishments for a guilty verdict include:
- Forfeiture of pay
- Confinement for two years
How to Defend Against Fraternization Charges
Simply because you’re accused of fraternizing doesn’t mean you must submit to the penalty without a fight. Possible defenses against a fraternization charge include:
- False accusation
- Proof of legal marriage prior to enlisting
- Proof that the relationship did not compromise the chain of command, good order, discipline, authority, or morale
- Proof that the fraternization was under the auspices of an official duty
Contact a Military Defense Lawyer
If you have been accused of fraternization, it’s critical to formulate an effective defense strategy. The best option is to partner with Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law. Based out of Fort Hood and Killeen, TX, Mr. Jordan has over a decade of experience defending service members against UCMJ violations. Prior to becoming a military defense lawyer, Mr. Jordan was an Army JAG officer, giving him a unique perspective and the tool necessary to effectively defend your case.