The U.S. military has warned troops not to show up in uniform at political events ahead of Donald Trump's rally set for Wednesday near Fort Bragg, the current venue for the court-marital of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Trump, who has called Bergdahl a traitor "who should have been executed," was scheduled to hold an evening rally Wednesday at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a 4,500-seat arena near the sprawling Army base.
In a Facebook posting on the Fort Bragg site, the Army said, "When political candidates come to town, it's important to keep in mind the rules for engaging in political activities. Unquestionably, service members can exercise their right to vote and carry out their obligations of citizenship. However, we must remain cognizant of the rules so as to avoid the perception of official endorsement."
Mindful of incidents at previous campaign events for the Republican presidential frontrunner, Christina Douglas, a Fort Bragg spokeswoman, said the rules mean Fort Bragg troops "can attend the rally (but) they can't attend in uniform."
Should the Republican frontrunner come across service members in uniform on his way into and out of town, those troops should avoid being photographed with him, Douglas said. Fort Bragg's reminders were in line with guidance put out each year by the Defense Department on involvement in political activities, she said.
A Pentagon directive states service members can "attend partisan and nonpartisan political fundraising activities, meetings, rallies, debates, conventions, or activities as a spectator when not in uniform and when no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement can reasonably be drawn."
Under the rules, bumper stickers were permitted on personal vehicles but political signs were not permitted on the homes of those living on base.
Trump will be the first 2016 presidential candidate of either party to hold a campaign rally in Fayetteville, the state's sixth-largest city and home to Fort Bragg.
Susan Mills, chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Party, told the Fayetteville Observer that the Trump rally would be a sign that "Fayetteville is really moving up."
"I really appreciate the fact that he recognizes Fayetteville can actually be a swing city in a state that will be a swing state again this year." North Carolina will hold its primary on March 15 and early voting begins a day after the Trump rally.
By population, Fort Bragg, home to the 82nd Airborne Division and the U.S. Special Operations Command, is the largest Army installation worldwide, with about 63,000 military and 11,000 civilian personnel.
Trump's statements about Bergdahl have prompted his defense team to ask to interview Trump to determine whether to seek a formal deposition from him or possibly even call him as a witness at the court-martial at a session out of the presence of the members of the court, or jury.
Eugene Fidell, the civilian attorney on Bergdahl's defense team, said the defense lawyers would likely monitor Trump's remarks at the Fayetteville rally but had no plans to attempt to speak with him.
Bergdahl is currently at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas while the court-martial proceedings at Fort Bragg, originally scheduled to start in August, were being delayed over procedural matters and access to classified documents.
Last week, Army Lt. Col. Franklin D. Rosenblatt, a Judge Advocate General and defense lawyer for Bergdahl, sent a letter to Trump asking to interview him "based on your personal knowledge of matters that are relevant to Sergeant Bergdahl's right to a fair trial."
Rosenblatt said the interview would "help us determine whether to seek a deposition order" or "your personal appearance as a witness" under Article 39 (a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As of Tuesday, the Trump campaign had not responded to the interview request.
Fidell said "we're particularly interested in knowing the full dimensions of his commentary" about the Bergdahl case and to determine whether Trump's remarks may have jeopardized Bergdahl's right to a fair trial. As defense lawyers, "we do have an obligation to conduct an investigation" and that included remarks by a candidate who seeks to become commander-in-chief, Fidell said.
Fidell said the defense team may also seek to interview others who have commented on the Bergdahl case and may have been in communication with the Defense Department. "We haven't ruled anything out," Fidell said.
Last October at a rally in Las Vegas, Trump said, "We're tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who's a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed. Thirty years ago, he would have been shot."
The military has been concerned about possible incidents at Trump rallies following a Trump campaign event last week in Louisville at which a young black woman protesting against Trump was shouted at and allegedly shoved.
A Marine recruit, Joseph Pryor, was later discharged from the Marine Corps' delayed entry program for his alleged involvement in the incident.
When asked Tuesday at a Pentagon news conference about incidents at Trump rallies, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook echoed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in declining comment. "The one place you won't hear talk in this election year about presidential politics" is at the Defense Department, Cook said.
Bergdahl left Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 30, 2009, and was captured by insurgents the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.
After nearly five years in captivity, he was released on May 31, 2014, in a controversial swap for five Taliban prisoners held at the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base.
Last March, Bergdahl was charged with one count of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place. The second count carries a maximum term of life imprisonment.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.