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Code of Conduct: Guide to Keeping the Faith

By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, April 27, 1999 – All service members receive training in the Code of Conduct at various times in their careers. Sometimes, within the security of a motor pool or on a flight line, they may wonder why.

But as the military plays an ever-increasing role in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and other "operations other than war," service members are increasingly at risk of capture by hostile forces.

That's exactly what has happened to Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone and Spc. Steven Gonzales, three cavalry scouts abducted March 31 by the Yugoslavian army while on a border patrol in Macedonia.

President Dwight Eisenhower introduced the uniquely American code in 1955, he said, partly in response to the North Koreans' use of prisoners for political propaganda during the Korean War. Service members who've been captured have cited the code as the foundation that helped them through the toughest times in their military careers, according to Al Erickson, chief of operational support at the Joint Services Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Agency at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The code is based on time-honored concepts and traditions that date back to the American Revolution. It embodies principles that have guided hundreds of U.S. prisoners of war and potential prisoners for almost 45 years, Erickson said.

The six articles outline the obligations and responsibilities of U.S. service members in harm's way:

  • To defend of the United States and its way of life.
  • To avoid surrender and to evade capture at any cost short of death.
  • To try to escape if captured.
  • To reject favors from the enemy.
  • To help fellow prisoners stay alive.
  • To avoid collaborating with the enemy.
  • To avoid statements or writing that discredit the United States or its allies.
  • To maintain personal responsibility for all actions.
  • To trust the U.S. government to care for your loved ones and work toward your release.

"Unlike the Geneva Conventions, which are an international legal guide regarding POWs, the Code of Conduct is a moral guide," Erickson said. "If you follow it, it enables you to best serve yourself, the nation and your fellow POWs."

Though not law or regulation, the code often coincides with the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, particularly those involving conduct in the face of the enemy, while evading capture or as a prisoner of war.

As demanding as the Code of Conduct may appear, Erickson said, almost every former U.S. POW has called it "a lifesaver that gave them something to hold onto during their captivity."

A 1997 Code of Conduct training videotape, Production No. 613126, can be borrowed for official uses through the Defense Automated Visual Information System. [link no longer available] The video discusses the code and the spirit it embodies, and it uses testimonials from service members who say the code helped them through the toughest days of their military careers:

  • Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant said he couldn't have recited its six articles -- but clearly understood the spirit of the code and let it govern his actions when he was taken captive in October 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Durant suffered a broken back, a compound fracture of his right leg and a broken cheekbone when his helicopter was shot down during a firefight that ultimately cost the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers. While in captivity, Durant's guards shot him in the arm. The Somalis also videotaped and broadcast images of his battered face.

Yet, Durant said, the Code of Conduct and the high standard of behavior it demands helped him through those difficult days. "It's important to know what's in it and what you should and should not do, and to live by it -- and up to it," he said.

  • Ironically, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bobby Hall had read the code just minutes before he left Camp Page, South Korea, on an ill-fated training mission in 1994. Hall and copilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Hilemon had been waiting for the weather to clear so they could depart. By chance, Hall looked at a nearby wall and started reading the words on a Code of Conduct poster.

Those words, Hall said, helped him through 13 days of captivity after his OH-58A Kiowa helicopter accidentally strayed over the border and the North Koreans shot him down.

  • Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady said the Code of Conduct gave him the will to drive on and evade capture for six days after his F-16 fighter was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Bosnia in 1995.

"I knew it was my duty to survive," he said, adding that the code reminded him that, although alone behind enemy lines, "I was still part of a team working to get me out, and I had to do my part."

Following O'Grady's rescue, then-Defense Secretary William Perry praised the pilot for exemplifying the code: "They shot his plane down," Perry said, "but not his spirit."

  • Following the Code of Conduct "takes perseverance, motivation, bravery and courage," according to Lt. Cmdr. Larry Slade, an F-14 Tomcat "backseater" shot down in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. But, he said, the code helped him survive 43 days in the hands of the Iraqis with honor.

The military has changed countless times since the introduction of the Code of Conduct in 1955, but the code itself has changed just twice. Its words were made gender neutral. The other change, initiated after the Vietnam War, clarified that service members may provide their captors more than just what Erickson calls "the big four": name, rank, Social Security number and birth date.

The change was intended to allow prisoners some discretion if they are facing torture or other life-threatening circumstances. According to Erickson, it allows them to discuss more than just the "big four," as long as they don't willingly give their captors information that violates the code -- even in the face of mental and physical duress.

Slade said the code helped him during his captivity, and continues to guide him in his day-to-day life. "It applies to every member of the military, every day," he said. "It can help you every day, no matter where you are - whether you're behind a desk, inside a tank or in an aircraft cockpit."

The Code of Conduct


I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.


I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.


If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.


If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them in every way.


When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country or its allies or harmful to their cause.


I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

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