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.