A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve was relieved of command in 2020 and is now facing removal from the force after he peddled racist opinions to his troops and peppered his social media accounts with a consistent flow of outlandish posts attacking public officials that his own lawyer described as racist, inflammatory and in poor taste.
Lt. Col. Michael Spillane, a medical officer with the 7207th Medical Support Group based out of Webster, New York, wrote a memo to soldiers under his command in June 2020, warning them of the "medical crisis created by China" and that "peaceful assemblies have turned into riots, looting, and shooting."
It was a memo full of typos and half truths laced with partisan wink and nod warnings about Democrats and minority-led protests amid a reckoning of racial justice, a highly atypical memo from an Army officer to his troops. Spillane's commander, Col. Jeffery Wood, later described the memo as offensive and inflammatory, in documents reviewed by Military.com.
"There is no reason to use such broad generalizations that can be taken as offensive," Wood wrote in a June 29, 2020, disciplinary statement for Spillane.
But it wasn't just Spillane's bizarre memo to his troops that led to a recent recommendation by a review board to remove him from service after a review of his conduct found him guilty of Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Gentleman. Troops are allowed to share political views, but regulations urge commentary to reflect "Army Values." The board also pointed to a waterfall of offensive memes posted to his Facebook account as justification to separate Spillane with a general discharge under honorable conditions. His discharge is awaiting final approval.
"Posting material on your personal social media that is clearly offensive is inconsistent with the Army Values and being a leader in the U.S. Army Reserve," Wood added into Spillane's record. "As we tell our newest soldiers, what you do in your civilian capacity reflects on your military position. You are in an especially sensitive position as a commander to affect your military position when you post or link offensive messages. Your soldiers are seeing these things and forming opinions about you."
While Spillane's lawyer, Sean Timmons, managing partner with Tully Rinckey's Houston office, agrees his client's posts are indeed offensive, the discharge status raises the stakes -- any status that isn't honorable can have dire consequences for a veteran. So-called "bad paper" discharges can exclude a veteran from benefits, mostly the GI Bill; hurt employment opportunities; and overall leave the veteran with a stigma that's difficult to shake off. Because of that, Timmons wants the Army to allow Spillane to leave with an honorable discharge.
In addition, Timmons argues that this is a First Amendment issue. Army regulations have vague guidance against posting obscene material on social media, and the UCMJ has rules against contempt toward public officials, including members of Congress. One Army legal official who spoke to Military.com on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case said troops are allowed to make political statements and engage in the democratic system, but the spirit of military law aims to forbid reckless and offensive slander toward elected officials.
Another post that Spillane shared was an altered Cream of Wheat box cover that replaced the product name with the phrase "Cream of Nothing" and swapped out the now-removed smiling, African American chef's face with that of President Barack Obama.
The chef caricature was removed from Cream of Wheat boxes in the fall of 2020 after the maker of the hot cereal noted that many found the logo offensive. The image dates back to the turn of the last century and was originally a smiling Black man called Rastus -- a pejorative term for Black men and a frequent character in minstrel shows. More recently, the image was intended to depict Chicago chef Frank L. White – though, in announcing the image's removal from its branding, the company said that it understood that he still reminded many of the original racist logo.
"The posts were objectively sexist, bigoted and offensive," Timmons told Military.com. "The question is what jurisdiction does the military have over a reservist in his private capacity on his private Facebook, posting his private political opinions? Our legal research is there is no jurisdiction."
A spokesperson with the Army Reserve did not respond to a request for comment.
Multiple posts by Spillane appeared to be sympathetic to the Confederacy, the rebel group that waged a gruesome war against the U.S. mostly over the right to preserve slavery. One post shows an image of the Confederate flag, saying that "if this symbol represents racism in America, so do these" and lists logos for the Democratic Party, the BET media company, the NAACP and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
The post trashed efforts to support historically disadvantaged communities, peddling falsehoods from the far right that minorities get systemic advantages over white Americans, such as overabundant access to college scholarships through avenues like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund -- which grants mostly small scholarships to American citizens and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program recipients.
Another showed an image of Robert E. Lee with text, "Do not take a knee, take a stand! Support Saving out history and our nation," in an apparent reference to Colin Kaepernick, a former Black NFL quarterback who was a cultural lightning rod for rightwing pundits and lawmakers for kneeling during the national anthem at the start of football games, protesting racial inequality and police brutality.
Spillane also made numerous anti-Muslim posts. One saying, "77 years after Pearl Harbor, it still hurts. But, 19 years after 9/11, we are importing them in and they're writing our laws," an apparent reference freshman lawmakers Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., both of whom are Muslim and have drawn the partisan and racially charged ire of rightwing media and some GOP lawmakers. Tlaib was born in Detroit, while Omar was born in Somalia and moved to the U.S. as a teenager after her family sought asylum from violence in the East African country.
Another post shows an image of white men in hard hats and a photo of a Muslim family, saying, "Men like this are forced to work until they're 70, because the government is bringing in more and more people like this."
It is unclear how many troops have faced consequences for conduct on social media, but Spillane may be one of the first soldiers to be booted from the force in the wake of the Pentagon's newly announced policies aimed at eliminating extremism in the ranks. The 21-page report announcing those policies, released Dec. 20, specifically noted that "military personnel are responsible for the content they publish on all personal and public Internet domains, including social media sites, blogs, websites, and applications."
When the policy was announced, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby noted that the newly prohibited behavior "wouldn't be something that the command or the department's going to be actively fishing for." The investigation on Spillane was initiated after soldiers in his unit reported his online conduct, and the Pentagon seemingly had no involvement in flagging his posts or the investigation, according to documents reviewed by Military.com.
A soldier, whose identity was withheld in documents obtained by Military.com, told investigators in the inquiry that led to Spillane's removal from command in 2020 that he circulated a memo to his troops dated June 24, 2020, telling them they can express themselves freely on social media when not on duty.
"We all have personal beliefs and feelings, that is one benefit living in a Free Country," Spillane wrote in the memo reviewed by Military.com. "As a member of the US Army Reserves we are Citizen Soldiers and unless we are are orders, we all have a right to express these views. However once you are on Orders regardless of beliefs, race, gender we all put on green and follow the rules and regulations set fourth by the Department of Defense."
Military.com is exactly reproducing those passages as written.
The soldier, whose statement to investigators suggested they are above Spillane in the chain of command, questioned him about his memo on June 30, 2020.
"LTC Spillane seemed to not grasp the idea that someone could take offense to his posts or that his position as a commander requires greater scrutiny and empathy," the soldier said. "Furthermore, he indicated to me that he plans to file an EO [equal opportunity] complaint as he believes that he is being discriminated against and stated that he finds the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' to be racist and he takes offense to seeing it on his soldiers' Facebook posts."
Some soldiers interviewed by investigators described Spillane as an effective commander who displayed no racist, sexist or otherwise offensive behavior in person, entirely different from his online persona.
"Everyone has their faults but as a commander, the expectations are higher of them," another soldier said to investigators. "LTC Spillane just needs a little guidance due to his awkward personality."
Others described him as a subpar leader. When one soldier was asked by investigators whether Spillane was effective, they simply replied, "No, not really."
Another soldier went on to paint a bleak picture of Spillane's leadership, saying he and someone identified as Cpt. Colon ordered them to drive 530 miles overnight or be counted as absent without leave, or AWOL, after the soldier requested to care for their dad who was going through prostate cancer treatment.
The soldier had to jump the chain of command, going to Spillane's superiors and a command sergeant major to get permission to stay with their sick dad.
"Honestly though, what type of leader orders their subordinates to drive 530 miles in one day, let alone overnight?"
Scrutiny of service member's social media content is not new. Early in 2021, the Pentagon said it was planning to examine posted content of personnel undergoing reviews for security clearances.
The training material released as part of that announcement noted that, while troops have First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peaceably, the military must still assess their character, honesty, discretion, judgment and trustworthiness when deciding whether they are reliable enough to have access to classified or sensitive information.
In 2019, a Marine lance corporal was booted from the service after his racist social media posts came to light. Lance Cpl. Mason Mead shared a photo of a swastika, a quote from a Nazi collaborator, and an image of himself in blackface. He also encouraged violence against women.
Another Marine, a reservist, was busted down to private that same year for sharing a photo on social media of Marines posing with their boots in the shape of a swastika.
While Spillane is looking at the end of his career after offensive posts, the military and particularly the National Guard have been slow to crack down on the force.
A National Guardsman who was part of the mob that rampaged through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is still serving in Wisconsin despite having been sentenced by a federal court to probation and a fine for his actions. Fellow soldiers and his commander wrote letters of support ahead of his sentencing.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.