In hallways and offices around the globe, American military facilities have signs and posters hung about insisting that the men and women defending our nation maintain OPSEC, or operational security. Using imagery reminiscent of 1950s propaganda, these wall decorations plead with our troops to consider any open channel a direct line to our nation’s enemies – reminding us each that a simple mistake could cost the lives of our brothers and sisters in harm’s way.
For many of us that spent the best years of our lives in uniform, these reminders eventually draw less and less of our attention, until ultimately we grow numb to them and rely on our developed sense of procedure and regulation. When you’re not tasked with representing the military to the public, it can be easy to neglect the anxiety OPSEC demands – we simply leave our work at work, and let the rules we abide by serve as the filter that keeps our secrets a secret.
For those in the public affairs field, however, OPSEC is far more important than the posters on the wall. When serving as the liaison between American forces fighting the good fight and the perceptions of the world beyond, maintaining the operational security of the men and women you represent becomes the golden rule, to be held high above all others. For soldiers like Ricardo Branch, a public affairs Non-Commissioned Officer at one point assigned to a special operations unit that played a direct role in bringing the world’s most dangerous terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, to justice, operational security was a way of life.
As was the case one fateful day in February of 2014, when Staff Sergeant Branch was tasked with reviewing a proposed article set for publication in Boeing’s internal news service. The article included a sentence that suggested Branch’s unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), had been involved in delivering SEAL Team Six to the site of the raid – a statement Branch believed had not been vetted or confirmed by the Department of Defense.
Branch, in the course of his duties as a guardian of operational security for the men in his unit, emailed the officer responsible for the article with a brief recommendation: he advised that the sentence in question be removed from the article in order to ensure it did not violate regulations pertaining to OPSEC. The email was sent via his DoD (.mil) account, as placing such content in a private email server could certainly be seen as troublesome – as former Secretary of State and recent presidential candidate Hillary Clinton could attest.
Imagine Staff Sergeant Branch’s surprise then, when he came in to work soon thereafter to find Army Intelligence had initiated an investigation into what they claimed was a transmission of classified information over unsecured channels. His email, advising the officer that sent the original document to remove a sentence in a story to ensure it did not violate security protocols, now found him being treated like a criminal; promptly being sent home and soon being given the option between accepting a non-judicial punishment (referred to as an Article 15), or face a criminal court-martial for what the Army claimed was a breach of OPSEC.
It would seem that by merely including the sentence he advised the officer to remove from the Boeing article, the Army considered Branch himself to be in violation of the rules he was working to uphold. Worse still, no one was ever charged or investigated for writing or transmitting the original article he cited.
Branch, who had received nothing but good performance reviews in his ten plus years in service to that point, acknowledged that, although he was confused about how his actions could be construed as any such violation, he was eager to put the situation behind him. He accepted the Article 15, in which he received only a verbal reprimand, and set out to redouble his efforts and prove that a stumbling block like this one couldn’t hinder his otherwise solid military career.
He wouldn’t find out until later that both President Barrack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had revealed the same supposedly classified information in public speeches given on military bases in the days following the raid. Soon, he’d also come to find that the Army itself had published the same details on their own webpage, Army.mil – which would entail a process Branch knew should have required the same level of security review he was punished for offering his own commander. Details regarding the 160th’s involvement in Osama Bid Laden’s death were even included in books on the subject and were alluded to in the popular movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
It would seem Branch was punished for attempting to curtail a revelation that the Executive Branch and the Pentagon had already deemed too insignificant to warrant stifling in countless other forums. Despite all that, Branch received the first derogatory performance review of his career as a result of the Article 15 – a black mark that would also be his last, as Branch’s efforts to bounce back from his “mistake” were rewarded by excellent marks from his commanders in the years to follow.
But Branch’s surprises were far from over. As President Obama pushed for a reduction in America’s military, the Quantitative Management Program (QMP) set out to identify soldiers with a history of misconduct and separate them from the force. Although Branch had since been transferred and was serving as the editor for a military newspaper in South Korea, his single derogatory mark saw him the target of the QMP program – and he was notified that he was being forced out of the Army as a result of his fictional violation of security regulations.
“In my professional opinion as a JAG officer with 20 years in service and having tried over 150 cases, they would have not brought this to a court-martial if he had turned down the Article 15,” said former Army judge advocate, Jeffery Addicott, who now represents Branch in his appeals to remain in the Army he loves. “There is no way the government would get a conviction, particularly based on the fact that President Obama had already released the information to the public. If they did bring it to a trial, Branch would exercise his right to demand a jury, and they would never get a conviction.”
When I contacted Branch, he was unwilling to disclose any element of the investigation into him, even those which have already been covered in detail by other news outlets. For the past fourteen years of his life, Staff Sergeant Branch has been an American Soldier – and now, facing the likelihood that those years will be thrown away as the result of an ineffectual command structure failing to recognize the lack of validity to the accusations levied against him, he and his family have nothing but a tenuous grasp on a third and final appeal to cling to as they look toward an uncertain future.
“I’m a third-generation soldier, it’s what my family does. I grew up following my dad and learning why he chose to serve,” Branch told me over the phone. “Those values compelled me to continue on with our family tradition of service to our country.”
Branch’s brother is also a soldier serving in the U.S. Army.
Staff Sergeant Branch and his attorney, Jeffrey Addicott, are in the midst of submitting a third and final appeal to the Army. Branch was authorized a sixty-day extension in order to see it through, and hopes the addition of the original investigation into any potential wrongdoing on his part will provide the board of appeals all they need to overturn the decision.
If not, the sixty days will elapse and the career of a man who has devoted his entire adult life to serving as the means by which the American public can learn of the heroism demonstrated on their behalf, will end unceremoniously and without the honor his service deserves.
Addicott, Branch’s attorney, recognizes the need for administrative discipline like the Article 15 his client was subjected to, but makes it clear that enforcing the QMP’s decision to do away with the decorated three-time combat veteran over something so miniscule would make it evident that it’s the wrong kind of policy to produce a formidable military.
“We want to keep good NCOs, but the military is trying to rid itself of war veterans like SSG Branch who was targeted for simply doing his job.” Addicott told SOFREP. “A zero-defect military will leave us with the milk duds who never go left or right or lean forward in the saddle. This spells disaster. We need leaders like SSG Branch.”
Branch and Addicott will soon be submitting the finalized appeal he hopes will clear his name and allow him to continue his career in service to the United States of America. Addicott, who is providing his services to Branch pro-bono because he believes the Soldier is firmly in the right, has yet to lose such a case. One can only hope the Army is willing and capable to recognize the mistakes that were made leading up to this dramatic culmination of Branch’s service to date… as a soldier who was just trying to do the right thing has had his family’s name dragged through the mud for nearly three years as a result.
Branch, his brother, father, and grandfather have all shown the United States, and the Army in particular, the honor, loyalty and commitment the service deserves. Let’s hope the Army will finally respond in kind.