In the wake of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision that found that workplace display of the Gadsden Flag, with its coiled snake and "Don't Tread on Me" slogan, could constitute racial harassment, the Navy has authorized wear of a patch depicting a snake and the same slogan for all troops who wear the Navy's woodland-patterned camouflage working uniform.
But despite their similarities, the two images have a very different history. Critics of the Gadsden Flag, designed by Christopher Gadsden in 1775 and more recently used as a rallying image for the right-wing Tea Party movement, say the flag's separate use by white supremacist groups makes its display racially insensitive. By contrast, the Navy patch, featuring an uncoiled snake on a striped background, is based on the First Naval Jack, also designed in 1775 but used historically for only Navy purposes. In 2002, then-Navy Secretary Gordon England authorized all Navy warships and auxiliaries to fly the flag during the "Global War on Terrorism."
"The Navy is not authorized to fly or wear the Gadsden flag," a spokeswoman for Navy Personnel Command, Lt. Jessica Anderson, told Military.com.
The Navy's patch had its own moment of controversy in 2013, when a former Navy SEAL wrote in the conservative publication The Daily Caller that active-duty Navy SEALs had been ordered to remove the patch from their uniforms. The report was picked up some steam before it was investigated and debunked by the Navy. Officials would later call the dustup the result of an "honest mistake" by a senior enlisted sailor.
Anderson said the Navy had opted to authorize the patch for all sailors who wear Navy woodland and desert camouflage as the Navy's woodland camouflage replaces the much-maligned "blueberries" blue digital print as the primary working form for the service.
"We're going to a uniform that can have patches, and people are going to ask the question," Anderson said.
The new rules authorize the Don't Tread on Me patch on the right shoulder and the reverse U.S. flag patch on the left with the NWU Type II and III desert and woodland uniforms.
"Sailors have been requesting the authority to wear the patches to show their esprit de corps," Anderson said. "Navy has been working with Navy Exchange Command and Natick Textile Engineers to complete the development of the new patch and build sufficient inventory."