Cadets say they use caution when it comes to social media

New London - When he shares his thoughts or photos on Facebook, Peter Driscoll asks himself whether his supervisors would approve.

Driscoll, who is 20, said he would not post any photos that show him near alcohol, not even if he is just holding a red Solo cup of water. People may assume there is alcohol in the cup, he said.

As a second-class cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Driscoll said he must use social media differently than his friends who did not join the military.

"It's just like when you're wearing a uniform," the junior cadet said. "You are representing your service, just in a different way, on Facebook."

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in early December at a conference in Washington that he worries the next generation, young men and women who are now in their teens, probably underestimate the impact of their social media persona and what it could mean later in life when it comes to things like security clearances and promotions.

Several cadets said officials and senior cadets at the New London academy have made it clear to them that they will be held to a high standard. The cadets said they know that standard applies to their behavior while at academy, at home on leave and online.

"It isn't a civilian college," Christina Frost, 20, a third-class cadet, said. "We do have a military component, and part of that is making smarter decisions. I think that is a positive thing. It teaches you to be more mature when you post things on Facebook. It helped me grow up from what I might have posted in high school."

Driscoll said he tries to use the same common sense and value judgments online as he displays in person, which he said is more of a reflection of who he is than how he has been trained.

The entire student body does not receive specific training on the personal use of social media. Cadet administrators of academy-sanctioned social media pages meet with a public affairs officer to discuss privacy issues and the comments policy. Cadets also write blogs about life at the school that are posted on the academy's website.

Freshmen cadets are banned from using social media because it can be a distraction.

No cadet has been disciplined in recent memory for his or her personal use of social media, said Lt. Megan Mervar, an academy spokeswoman, but if evidence of a cadet's misconduct came to light through social media, the command would handle it in the same way as it would any other report of misconduct. The academy does not monitor cadets' personal accounts, she said.

Sophomore Justin Sherman, 20, a second-class cadet, said he does not want to disclose anything online that would reflect poorly on him, or the Coast Guard, but he spends the most time thinking about whether his Facebook posts could compromise the military's security or a mission.

An avid photographer, Sherman said he mostly shares photos of academy events so his friends and relatives can see what he's doing.

Driscoll said he has the same security concerns as Sherman. Cadets go out into the fleet during the summer, and, Driscoll said, he would hate it if, for example, he posted online where he would be on a cutter and, as a result, his unit interdicted fewer drugs because smugglers saw the post and took alternate routes.

Frost said she hopes Dempsey's comments make military members and potential recruits rethink their approach to social media.

"Everyone back home knows I'm a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, and what I do, they automatically associate that with the academy," the junior said. "Even though I'm just a third-class cadet, what I post still reflects on the academy. A lot of people don't realize that or make that connection, so when it's coming from someone at the top, they may think, 'This is more of a big deal than I thought it was.'"

The academy is also home to Officer Candidate School, where the students who are learning to be Coast Guard officers are slightly older, about 25 years old on average. Cmdr. Zachary Pickett, officer accessions chief at the school, said the officer candidates are generally more family-oriented and tend not to put everything on Facebook like a cadet might do.

Pickett, however, is still developing a presentation on social media for the officer candidates. It needs some revisions, he said, and he has to find someone to deliver it who is social-media savvy.

Pickett said he deleted his personal Facebook page about five years ago because he knew he would be judged if his friends, or their friends, posted anything inappropriate.

During his previous assignment at a marine safety unit in Texas, Pickett said, he saw a need for social media training because he had to speak with members of the unit about what they posted online. In one Facebook photo, a service member was shown riding a motorcycle in a tank top and shorts even though the Coast Guard requires protective clothing and a helmet, he said.

Pickett said he hasn't ever disciplined anyone at the school for the inappropriate use of social media.

Members of the military can be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for what they say online. It is a crime, for instance, for a commissioned officer to use "contemptuous words" against the president, vice president, Congress, secretary of defense or other specified high-ranking government officials.

Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard, said his office gives social media briefings to soldiers and airmen throughout the year. Deploying units are told not to reveal troop movements, and all guardsmen are told about the importance of common sense and professionalism.

Whitford said social media is a great communications tool - "it's the now" - but he wants to make sure the state's soldiers and airmen are not endangering their security clearances or chances for promotion.

"I think Gen. Dempsey is trying to get out in front of that, and we have been talking about that quite a bit," Whitford said. "… We drill it and drill it and drill it."

Pickett said he, too, is glad Dempsey raised the issue.

"People can get jammed up if they are not careful, and I'm glad he is now at least putting it out there publicly that he has a certain expectation, which is smart," Pickett said. "It'll manage people's expectations. And if they desire to get into the military, they may say, 'Oh geez. I have to take a look at what my online persona is and manage that more carefully.'"

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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