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FROM THE BLOGS - TEA PARTY TALKERS
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NAPLES — Once a Marine, always a Marine, the saying goes.
Things aren’t so simple in the eyes of the U.S. Marine Corps, however.
When former leatherneck Dave Willoughby wore his old dress uniform while attending the tea party Tax Rally on Thursday, he may have broken Corps policy. Willoughby, 37, now a full-time firefighter in North Naples, pumped a sign supporting term limits for Congress, less government spending and a smaller federal government, among other political issues.
No longer on active-duty or reserve, Willoughby said he wore the uniform in part to display his loyalty to the Constitution, which he believes is being ignored by politicians and President Barack Obama.
“My oath that I swore does not have an expiration date,” he said.
But what about his uniform? Can a former Marine wear his military while participating in a political gathering?
The answer appears to be a firm “no.”
Although the Daily News originally reported that Willoughby was likely allowed to wear the uniform, a full reading of policy clearly states otherwise.
Department of Defense policy limits the occasions that “former members of the Armed Forces” can wear their uniforms to military funerals, memorial services, weddings and inaugurals, or holiday parades and patriotic occasions when a military unit is present.
“Wearing of the uniform or any part thereof at any other time for any purpose is prohibited,” the policy states.
Willoughby separated from the Corps in 2000, following four years of active-duty service and four years of reserves, according to the Marine Corps and his own account. Even if he were a current member of the military, whether on active-duty, on reserve or retired, he would be prohibited from wearing the uniform for “the furtherance of political activities.”
Marines who answered the phone at a Fort Myers recruiting station and at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, each said they read the policy the same way. They declined to comment officially, instead referring questions to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. The headquarters, in turn, referred to policy experts at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The office did not respond to an inquiry.
When told of the policy, Willoughby said he didn’t have it in front of him but believed he was permitted to wear the uniform. If he wasn’t, he believes wearing the uniform still fell in line with his oath.
“Am I disgracing the uniform in any way, shape or form?” he asked.
Willoughby considers himself a Marine and a tea party advocate at the same time. His father, Barry Willoughby, organized the first Tax Day rally a year ago, and father and son have been involved ever since. For Dave Willoughby, anyone who has a problem with his uniform is against the military or patriotic displays.
“Anybody who sees anything wrong with that shouldn’t be living in our country, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The uniform is a response to tea party critics, he said, some of whom have questioned the legitimacy of the groups as grass-roots or suggested they are un-American or unpatriotic. Willoughby believes the opposite — that he is upholding his oath by attending the rally.
“I am the definition of patriotic, grass-root American,” Willoughby said.
Although other veterans at Thursday’s rally wore their insignia or uniforms, Willoughby cut an especially striking figure, enough to the catch the attention of those who agreed and disagreed with him. He received a lot of handshakes, he said, and he believes the majority of protestors supported his decision.
When Naples resident Gretchen Ziems, 70, drove past the protest and saw Willoughby, she had her doubts.
“I called a recruiting station in Fort Myers, and they told me neither active-duty nor former military personnel are allowed to wear their uniforms in a political protest,” she said.
Willoughby noted that older veterans at the protest wore insignia and patches, as many do at campaign events. He also recalled an old World War II veteran wearing his full uniform Thursday.
“What are they going to do? Are they going to go up to the old Marine was serving in World War II island hopping and tell him he can’t wear his uniform?” he asked.
But Willoughby, who is young and trim and who wears a modern uniform, cut a more striking figure, of course. He looked as though he had stepped away from a military ceremony and onto the sidewalk.
“If you could find enough Marines to say, ‘You’re disgracing the Marine Corps, you’re dishonoring the uniform, then I would seriously reconsider,’” Willoughby said.
The odds of that are not very good, he decided.