WASHINGTON — Like it or not, the military finds itself in a highly visible, and often uncomfortable, role in a campaign season that features a decorated war hero as a presidential candidate.
On Tuesday night alone, the Republican National Convention was dominated by an emotional Iraq war video, testimonials by Medal of Honor winners about John McCain and tales of heroism by fallen Navy SEAL Michael A. Monsoor of Garden Grove.
However, public recognition of two of Monsoor's SEAL teammates by the speaker, Orson Swindle, a former prisoner of war and McCain's onetime cellmate, caused an awkward moment for the military brass in the Pentagon.
Navy officials said Wednesday that the two active-duty SEALs were not supposed to be identified and were singled out publicly by mistake.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly urged members of the active-duty military to remain apolitical. The Pentagon has extensive rules to ensure their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are not turned into political props.
But McCain's candidacy, closely associated with the military and the conflict in Iraq, is creating some tricky situations for the Pentagon.
The military has granted permission to McCain's sons, one in the Navy and the other in the Marines, to appear on the convention stage with their father tonight. But they are not to make speeches, disparage other candidates or introduce their father.
The military regulations are intended to prevent the appearance that the military is endorsing a candidate.
However, rules are different for members of the military reserves and National Guard, some of whom are politicians. Beau Biden, son of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, is Delaware's attorney general and an Army National Guard member who introduced his father at the Democratic National Convention and spoke indirectly about his upcoming deployment to Iraq.
In reviewing the request for convention appearances by Marine Lance Cpl. James H. McCain and Navy Midshipman John S. McCain IV, the military decided the public would see two sons supporting their father, rather than the Defense Department taking sides in the election.
"We concluded the appearance of Sen. McCain's sons on stage at the convention would not lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the Department of Defense, the Navy or the Marine Corps had endorsed his candidacy," said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman.
Davis said McCain's sons had not been granted permission to participate in any other political events.
Navy officials said the SEALs, Lt. Leif Babin and Special Warfare Operator First Class Tom Deshazo, were supposed to sit silently at the convention Tuesday with Monsoor's sister, Sara.
But ad-libbing, Swindle, a retired Marine lieutenant general, identified them from the podium and asked them to rise as conventioneers applauded. The two SEALS, who were with Michael Monsoor the day he died, appeared to stand somewhat awkwardly.
Davis said that the SEALs were given permission by their chain of command to attend the event on the condition that they did not wear uniforms, were on leave from their posts and avoided political activity.
"The RNC was asked, and agreed, not to recognize the SEALs at the convention or to allow interviews with the media," Davis said. "We understand the speaker ad-libbed his comments in which he identified the two SEALs and asked them to stand up."
A Republican National Convention release that contained Swindle's prepared remarks backs up the Navy's claim. In the prepared comments, Swindle only identified Sara Monsoor and made no mention of the SEALs.
Military officials emphasized that the SEALs attended the convention because Sara Monsoor requested they come to provide her moral support. "They felt a high obligation to the family," said a military official, speaking anonymously because he was discussing internal deliberations. "They did it out of a sense of honor."