KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force acknowledged that the display by security forces airmen at Ramstein Air Base of a "thin blue line" flag violated Defense Department policy on what types of flags can be flown on U.S. bases.
The 86th Airlift Wing posted and later removed photos on its Facebook page of airmen in uniform carrying a black-and-white American flag with a blue horizontal stripe during a 24-hour rucksack march as part of National Police Week.
The photos drew immediate condemnation by some in the community who questioned the display on a U.S. military base of a flag that has become a polarizing symbol in a nation grappling with police violence and racism.
The "thin blue line" flag is used to show support for law enforcement, but it's also been used by white supremacist groups and flown at far-right rallies.
"Really surprised to see such a highly charged political flag being flown on base by airmen in uniform," a commenter said in response to the original photo posts. "I thought this was not allowed in uniform. Has this changed?"
The photos were shared in support of "our base Defenders" from multiple units who participated in the march, the wing said in a Facebook post after the images were removed.
They were "only intended to show praise for their hard work and military service," base officials said. The statement acknowledged the photos violated DOD policy "regarding the use of flags on military installations. For this, we take full responsibility."
On Wednesday, base officials said carrying the flag was a tradition used to show support for the security forces community.
"They were not making or endorsing any political statement or activity," an 86th Airlift Wing statement said. "Base leaders are taking appropriate action to ensure personnel are aware of current regulations regarding the use of flags.
"We appreciate the community's response and feedback and want to ensure everyone understands that we take situations like this very seriously. We will continue to focus on what unifies us as service members while promoting an environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect."
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a militarywide policy last summer limiting what flags can be displayed by service members on U.S. installations. Military and congressional leaders at the time had been pressing Esper to ban the Confederate flag across the department.
The policy says "the flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols."
It spells out what flags are authorized. They include the American flag, state flags, military service flags, the POW/MIA flag, flags of partner or allied countries, and ceremonial, command, unit, or branch flags or guidons.