Americans Open Their Hearts to Servicemembers
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2005 As the traditional gift-giving season gets under way, American people, corporations and service groups are showing their gratitude to American servicemembers, especially those who are deployed, in combat zones, or have been wounded.
"The outpouring from the public of good will, compassion and recognition for the sacrifices of these military personnel is remarkable and very gratifying," said Stephen Epstein, director of the Standards of Conduct Office within DoD's Office of the General Counsel.
However, Epstein added, recent misunderstandings that have been reported in the media have surfaced about what can and can't be donated to servicemembers, including those who've been wounded.
Federal gift-giving rules apply to all servicemembers and their families. There is no distinction between wounded or nonwounded.
In general, military personnel and their family members may accept unsolicited gifts as long as they are not offered because of their official position or from a "prohibited source."
A prohibited source is any person or group that:
Seeks official action from the employee's agency; Does or seeks to do business with his or her agency; Conducts activities regulated by his or agency; or Has interests that may be substantially affected by the individual employee's official duties.
Federal rules define a gift as any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value. It also includes services such as training, transportation, local travel, lodging and meals.
"The general rule is that you can't accept gifts from defense contractors," Epstein said, noting such situations may be perceived by the public as attempts to curry favor or influence official decisions. As a result, defense contractors tend to make donations to relief organizations and charitable groups that support the armed forces, he said.
Ethics officials point out that since the rules involve many exemptions and exceptions, military personnel should consult their local judge advocates, legal counsel or ethics officials before accepting gifts.
For example, troops may accept coffee, doughnuts and other food and refreshments offered other than as part of a meal. They may accept greeting cards, plaques, certificates and trophies and other items with little intrinsic value. They also may accept awards and prizes in contests open to the public.
Another exception -- commonly known as the $20 rule -- applies when gifts (other than cash) from a single source have a market value of $20 or less. However, an employee may not accept over $50 in gifts from the same source in a single year.
Troops may receive discounts from commercial companies if the discount is offered to all government or military personnel. Two of the nation's largest home-improvement retailers, Home Depot and Lowe's, for example, recently recognized Veterans Day by offering discounts for all active-duty military, reservists, retirees and their families.
Troops also may accept items provided as "bulk gifts" to the military, such as 100,000 pairs of sunglasses. A service branch or appropriate commander can accept items and then re-distribute them as part of authorized morale, welfare, and recreation activity or patient support service.
DoD personnel may not solicit gifts, even for others, unless the solicitation is part of an official fundraising program, such as the Combined Federal Campaign.
Troops may, however, advise groups, or individuals seeking to assist servicemembers, of their needs. Web sites run by charitable organizations offer troops the opportunity to request specific items to match them with donations. For example, deployed troops in Iraq have identified the need for, and received, air conditioners, boots, DVD players and other items.
The families of deceased DoD personnel, assuming they are not federal employees themselves, are not bound by these rules, Epstein said.
"We have put out guidance, available on our Web site, to assist ethics counselors and commanders in the field so they understand what the rules are as far as accepting gifts," he said. A complete list of rules regarding gifts to servicemembers (http://www.defenselink.mil/dodgc/defense_ethics/dod_oge/gifts_to_servicemembers.doc) is posted on the site.
Gifts of money to aid military personnel, including deployed or wounded servicemembers and their families, should be made to private relief organizations that provide assistance to affected personnel, officials advised.
These include the Armed Forces Relief Trust (http://www.afrtrust.org), Army Emergency Relief Society (http://www.aerhq.org), Navy & Marine Corps Relief Society (http://www.nmcrs.org), Air Force Aid Society (http://www.asaf.org), and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (www.cgmahq.org).