Top civilian Navy official draws fire after image of him carrying a weapon in a combat zone surfaces online

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer speaks with Marines and sailors assigned to Task Force Southwest at Camp Shorab, Afghanistan, December 23, 2017.

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Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer speaks with Marines and sailors assigned to Task Force Southwest at Camp Shorab, Afghanistan, December 23, 2017.
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US Marine Corps

  • Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer made a special holiday appearance with troops deployed in Afghanistan.
  • An image of him with a holstered sidearm drew some concern, due to his civilian status.
  • It would not be out of the ordinary to see a uniformed senior military official carrying a pistol in a combat zone, but, as a civilian, some people viewed Spencer arming himself as an unorthodox move.

After Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer made a special holiday appearance with troops deployed in Afghanistan, people in the military community took notice, and exception, to a picture of him with a pistol holstered on his thigh.

According to the Marine Corps, Spencer addressed a group of servicemembers at Camp Shorab, Afghanistan, on Saturday, December 23 with other top Marines, including Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Ronald Green.

A photo of the gathering shows a group of servicemembers listening to Spencer, who appears to have a pistol that resembles the Beretta M9 – a standard-issue pistol used by many in the military – on a holster attached to his right thigh.

“Can someone explain why the [civilian] head of the Navy is wearing a sidearm,” CNN correspondent Barbara Starr asked on Twitter in response to the photo.

Spencer was reportedly offered the pistol and ammunition from Marine commanders, according to a Navy spokesman cited in a San Diego Tribune report.

“He was offered the weapon to carry while he was traveling around [Afghanistan] and he accepted that offer,” the spokesman told The Tribune. “It was not something that he specifically requested and it was offered to everybody on the travel team.”

Senior military officials and VIPs are typically accompanied by an armed military personal-security detachment (PSD) or contractors for visits to combat zones. While it would not be out of the ordinary to see a uniformed senior military official carrying a pistol in a combat zone, as a civilian, some people viewed Spencer himself carrying a weapon as an unorthodox move.

Spencer was sworn in in August to become the Navy Secretary – a president-appointed and Senate-confirmed position held by a civilian to oversee all of the Navy’s operations. As a former H-46 Sea Knight pilot in the US Marine Corps, Spencer would have most likely been familiar with a pistol; however, would most likely not have been the M9, which was fielded to the military after he completed his service.

“It’s odd for a senior civilian political appointee to carry a weapon in a combat zone,” Phillip Carter, the director of the Center for a New American Security’s Military, Veterans, and Society research program, told The Tribune. “But if you’re going to carry then you should do so safely, with proper training, including both weapons [qualification] and [rules of engagement] training.”

Some saw his decision to arm himself as a form of showboating:

While others pointed to the inherent dangers of being in a combat zone:

Although the military is allowed to issue firearms to trained federal civilian employees, it was unclear whether Spencer received authorization from appropriate leadership or if he was certified to carry a firearm, The Tribune reported.