NAPLES — The leader of a local association of Marines added his voice to the controversy surrounding tea party leatherneck Dave Willoughby, criticizing Willoughby’s decision to wear his dress uniform during last week’s Tax Day rally.
Bob Kemp, commandant of the 235-member Naples detachment of the Marine Corps League, a non-profit organization composed of current, former and retired Marines, said Willoughby’s decision politicized the branch. A handful of league members drew his attention to the story, he said.
“Everyone in our league understands Marines are non-political,” Kemp said.
Kemp didn’t know if a former Marine could face penalty for wearing the uniform, and an inquiry to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the issue was not immediately returned. Kemp said Marines are taught at boot camp to separate the uniform from personal beliefs.
“He’s entitled to his opinions, everybody is,” Kemp said. “You’re welcome to state them, but you’re not allowed to wear the uniform while doing that.”
Willoughby, 37, reached on Monday, maintained he did nothing wrong. He noted that he supported no candidate or political party at the rally, and he said he spent much of his time with the "Pine Ridge Patriots," a group he characterized as supporting the military and being non-partisan.
He also defended the tea party gathering as being apolitical.
“As far as I’m concerned, the tea party in my opinion is not a political movement,” Willoughby said. “The tea party is a gathering of true, American patriots standing up for what they believe in.”
Willoughby held a sign during the rally supporting term limits for Congress, less government spending and a smaller federal government, among other policies. He has said the uniform and sign strike back at tea party critics, who he believes have belittled the gatherings as inauthentic and have brushed off attendees’ concerns.
Department of Defense policy, to which the Marine Corps adheres, states that active and former members of the armed services are prohibited from wearing uniforms during political or partisan events. Willoughby served in the Corps between 1993 and 2000. He is a North Naples firefighter.
Ralph Balzarano, the new commander of the Golden Gate Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, offered an assessment similar to Willoughby’s on Friday. He said tea party ideals were philosophical, not political. Regardless, he said, veterans commonly wear insignia and patches to political events.
“It’s up to the veteran,” said Balzarano, 65, an Army veteran. “In fact, if you look at some of these political rallies or when a candidate is running in the office, you see VFW caps everywhere. There’s nothing wrong about that.”
Kemp, with the Marine Corps League, said Marines in the group sometimes wear uniforms to balls or other league-sponsored activities. He said the group has its own uniform, which it wears during parades.
As on Friday, Willoughby noted that an older Marine veteran wore a uniform at the Tax Day rally. The Marine was identified in photographs by Tax Day organizer Barry Willoughby, who is Dave Willoughby's father. The marine was pictured wearing khakis and not a dress uniform. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
A defiant Dave Willoughby said he’ll take Kemp’s advice when he hears it first-hand.
“When the commandant himself sits down and tells me I can’t wear my uniform, I’ll take it into consideration,” he said. “Until then, I don’t owe anyone an apology.”
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