Gadsden Flag Patch on Airman's Uniform Wasn't Authorized, Officials Say

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Capt. Alexander Garland inserts a floppy disk into nuclear launch code equipment.
Capt. Alexander Garland, 341st Operations Support Squadron nuclear cryptographic operator, inserts a floppy disk into nuclear launch code equipment May 19, 2021, on Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Joseph Park)

An airman from the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, wore a Gadsden flag patch in place of the American flag on his uniform without authorization, according to a base spokesperson.

U.S. Strategic Command on Saturday tweeted a news release promoting nuclear launch security measures, along with a photo of Capt. Alexander Garland, a 341st Operations Support Squadron nuclear cryptographic operator, inserting a floppy disk into equipment at the base, according to the photo caption. He was wearing the patch on his Operation Camouflage Pattern, or OCP, uniform in the photo.

"The incident has been addressed with the member's chain of command, and regulations regarding the wear of authorized patches -- in accordance with Air Force standards -- are being reinforced throughout the wing," a spokesperson from the 341st said Tuesday, adding that the patch in question is not authorized to be worn on Air Force uniforms.

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"Proper wear of the uniform is a vital element of good order and discipline, which guides our Strikers daily in the execution of our no-fail mission," the spokesperson said in an email statement, referring to the global strike mission.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the photo had been removed from the news release, but remained on Twitter. Per OCP wear instruction, it is mandatory for airmen to wear a U.S. flag cloth patch on the right sleeve.

Over the weekend, social media users were quick to note the Gadsden patch, which features a coiled snake and "Don't Tread on Me" slogan, questioning its use on an official military uniform.

The meaning of the Gadsden flag, designed by Christopher Gadsden in 1775, has seen a shift over the years. Once understood to represent limited government, it has been used as a rallying symbol for the right-wing Tea Party movement; by white supremacist groups; and most recently, by individuals who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In 2016, the Navy had to clarify to sailors that the Gadsden patch isn't authorized, though it bears similarities to another patch that features a snake and the same slogan.

That image, which is approved for wear only with the Navy's woodland-pattern camouflage working uniform, features an uncoiled snake on a striped background and is based on the First Naval Jack. It also was designed in 1775, but historically has been used only for Navy purposes.

In 2002, then-Navy Secretary Gordon England authorized all Navy warships and auxiliaries to fly that flag during the Global War on Terrorism.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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