Steve Thompson was on his way to pick up some feed for his goat farm Sunday morning when he noticed an impressive-looking military convoy and started filming. When he neared the lead vehicle in the convoy, the 32-year-old Shepherdsville, Ky., man noticed something else: A large blue and white Trump campaign flag.
“I just thought it was just a bunch of military vehicles,” Thompson, who was driving near Louisville at the time, told the Lexington Herald Leader. “I was surprised because I figured you wouldn’t be able to fly anything on a Humvee other than an American flag.”
The Navy has since confirmed that the convoy was from a Virginia Beach-based special warfare unit.
Thompson’s video is one of two that have been circulating on social media this week, drawing both praise and outrage, and prompting the Navy to open an investigation into the flag-flying display. One of the Facebook videos showing the convoy was viewed close to 80,000 times before it was taken down Thursday afternoon — but not before unleashing a flood of comments.
For some, military personnel publicly endorsing a political candidate exacerbates existing fears about American institutions falling prey to an administration that has been accused of having authoritarian impulses. For others, the flag was little more than a patriotic celebration highlighting the peaceful transfer of power.
The Navy has an opinion as well: The display was “unauthorized.”
Navy Capt. Jason Salata, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Command, said Thursday that his headquarters is aware of the photographs and has launched an inquiry.
The action could run afoul of a Defense Department directive that bans service members from acting in political manners while on active duty. Among the specific actions banned are displaying political signs or banners on a private vehicle and displaying a “partisan political sign, poster, banner or similar device” outside a residence on a military base.
Reached by email, Lt. Jacqui Maxwell, a spokeswoman for Naval Special Warfare Group Two, released a statement confirming that the vehicles captured on video and cameras were based in Fort Knox, Ky., and were driven by members of an East Coast Naval Special Warfare unit. At the time, she noted, the convoy was traveling between two military training areas.
“Department of Defense and Navy regulations prescribe flags and pennants that may be displayed as well as the manner of display,” the statement said. “The flag shown in the video was unauthorized. A command inquiry into this matter has been initiated.”
“Naval Special Warfare strives to maintain the highest level of readiness, effectiveness, discipline, efficiency, integrity, and public confidence,” the statement continued. “To this end, Naval Special Warfare leaders are committed to thoroughly and impartially investigating all non-frivolous allegations of misconduct. Where misconduct is present, the Naval Special Warfare commander responsible for ensuring good order and discipline within his unit will make a disposition decision as to the appropriate administrative and/or disciplinary action, if any.”
The videos were widely circulated by Indivisible Kentucky, a newly formed political organization that is opposed to the Trump agenda. The Louisville-based organization was among the first to post the footage online.
“This is a fascist tactic,” a statement on the group’s website said. “This is not acceptable. RESIST!!!”
Chris Rowzee, a 28-year Air Force veteran who serves as the group’s spokeswoman, said the display should be disturbing to members of the military and the public and raises “all kinds of red flags.”
Members of the military take an oath to the Constitution, not political figures, she said.
“The military is absolutely prohibited from demonstrating any sort of partisan political activity or support towards a party, political campaign or a candidate,” Rowzee said. “The bottom line is the public has to trust that the military is non-political and that it’s not going to back someone who might try to become some sort of a dictator.”
“Our military has a long history of that sort of security with the public and this sort of activity undermines that trust,” she added.
It is dangerous for liberty when the military becomes political. These servicemembers should be counseled/reprimanded. Unprofessional. https://t.co/gNokOqDeIj
— Joe Plenzler (@JoePlenzler) February 2, 2017
What's funny is same people angry about my having a problem with Trump flag on SEAL truck would have lost their minds if it was Obama one.
— Fred Wellman (@FPWellman) February 2, 2017
U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Trump-supporting Republican and former Navy SEAL from Virginia Beach, told the Virginian Pilot that the decision to fly the flag was clearly inappropriate and was quickly corrected by the individual’s senior officer.
“Obviously, it’s inappropriate,” Taylor told the paper. “It’s very clear that you should not be doing that, that they shouldn’t be involved in politics, overtly in their military capacity.”
It’s common for military convoys of the likes captured on camera in Kentucky to display boutique flags on deployment, though it’s rare for it to happen in the United States. Gadsden and pirate flags are common, as are flags with the logos of various sports teams.
Dan Lamothe and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.