Before joining the military, potential recruits need to know that their legal status is going to change once they put on their new uniform. Military personnel are not only subject to the federal, state and local laws, but they are also subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ.
The UCMJ outlines a strict set of rules of behavior for those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, and some of the regulations don't really overlap with a civilian counterpart. What might be totally legal in the United States could be illegal under the UCMJ. The UCMJ got an overhaul in 2019, its first since 1984, so some surprising crimes (like cohabitation with someone who is not your spouse) are now a-OK.
Just so you know, we here at Military.com aren't lawyers, we're writers. None of this should be taken as legal advice. We are just informing you that knowing some of the law service members are subject to is just a good idea -- including the 2022 changes to the UCMJ.
Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is called the "General Article," and is really a catch-all article that covers a number of offenses. In the original UCMJ that came into effect in 1951 until its overhaul in 2019, there were 55 specific offenses listed under Article 134, one of which was "Indecent Language."
This means that the everyday swearing and cursing troops use with each other is actually a criminal, non-capital offense under the UCMJ. This is, of course, rarely applied, except in the commission of a more serious offense. "Indecent" is defined as language that is "grossly offensive to modesty, decency, or propriety, or shocks the moral sense, because of its vulgar, filthy or disgusting nature, or its tendency to incite lustful thought."
2. The Drunk Prisoner Law
Under Article 112 of the old UCMJ, anyone providing liquor to someone who is serving time as a prisoner was as guilty of a crime as the prisoner drinking the booze. In the new UCMJ, this article got folded into the new Article 112, "Drunkenness and other incapacitation offenses."
What you may not know about military personnel who are prisoners in military custody is that they are considered on duty while serving time. So any prisoner who is caught drunk, whether it was provided to them or they made it in their cell toilet (prisoners are notoriously resourceful), they are technically drunk on duty.
This one also falls under Article 134 of the UCMJ, along with a few others on this list. That's the reason Article 134 is nicknamed "The Devil's Article." Straggling is "to wander away, to stray, to become separated from, or to lag or linger behind."
In a wartime situation, this could be pretty harmful to your unit. In a peacetime situation, it's just fairly uncool and might result in more work for you or your unit in the form of a longer ruck march or some additional duties. In either case, you could be brought up on charges, suffer reduced pay or even be confined for three months. So try to keep up.
Before the 2019 changes, "adultery" under the UCMJ was defined as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, in the baby-making way. New revisions to the UCMJ have updated the standards for a more tolerant and reasonably sex-positive America.
"Adultery" has now been rebranded as "Extramarital Sexual Conduct" and covers everything from traditional intercourse between a man and a woman to any kind of sexual contact and is now gender neutral. The conduct must still be "prejudicial to good order and discipline or of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed services."
It still carries the possibility of a fine, jail time and dishonorable discharge.
5. Wearing Unauthorized Uniform Items
The Stolen Valor Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2013 makes it illegal to wear unearned military awards and decorations, but only if the intent is to receive compensation or some other kind of tangible benefit. This means anyone can walk around wearing a Purple Heart for love or sympathy from civilians, as long as they aren't profiting from it.
Not so in the military. In 2019, an offense under Article 134 was given its own article. Article 106a of the UCMJ prohibits military members from "wearing unauthorized insignia, decoration, badge, ribbon, device, or lapel button."
6. Jumping from a Vessel into Water
What is a fun Fourth of July activity for many civilians is a crime punishable by a court-martial in the U.S. military. Intentionally jumping from any vessel being used by the U.S. military into water is a crime that faces a maximum punishment of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and up to two years of confinement.
U.S. Navy “Swim Calls” aside, this doesn't even have to be an official U.S. military ship, just one that was operated by or under control of any branch of the armed forces at sea or in port. You can beat this charge by proving you were attempting suicide, but it's probably best to just get the OK from the captain -- or not jump at all.
Although not as big of a problem in the military these days, the specific mention of dueling in the Uniform Code of Military Justice is kind of warranted if you know the history of dueling in America. There was a time when a duel was the way to settle disputes between individuals -- and U.S. military officers had a lot of disputes.
One in 12 naval officers who were killed on active duty before 1815 died in duels, according to author Stephen Budiansky. Two-thirds of U.S. Navy officers killed before the Civil War met their fate in a duel. Today, Article 114, "Endangerment Offenses," requires military personnel to report possible duels to their command under threat of imprisonment.
Want to Learn More About Military Life?
Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.