WASHINGTON -- A U.S. soldier faces punishment as early as today for refusing to wear the blue patch and cap of a United Nations peacekeeper.
Spc. Michael New is the first U.S. soldier to refuse to wear the U.N. insignia, according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bill Harkey. How the Army handles his case will set a precedent for dealing with breaches of an increasingly controversial and frequent part of military service -- assignment to the United Nations.
His defiance touches a sensitive national political nerve as conservative opposition to U.S. troops serving under foreign -- .. and particularly U.N. -- command grows on Capitol Hill.
Specialist New was to be deployed this month with 500 others from the 15th Infantry Battalion in Schweinfurt, Germany, to Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic.
But on Tuesday, he refused to parade with the blue U.N. sleeve patch and blue beret.
After appearing in Army battle dress, he was told that he was disobeying a lawful order, pulled from formation for appearing "out of uniform," and now faces disciplinary action.
The threat of court-martial and discharge was dropped yesterday when his battalion commander offered "nonjudicial" punishment, which could involve reprimand, demotion, transfer
to another unit, a fine or restriction to base.
He has until Monday to decide whether to accept the punishment or demand trial by court-martial, but he could choose to face his commander today.
Specialist New's unit has been assigned to the United Nations' Task Force Able Sentry, in which 2,500 Americans have already served without known protest since 1993. Its mission: to prevent the spread of war in the Balkans.
Until now, there has been no blemish on his record. He volunteered for four years as an Army medic, served six weeks in Kuwait, and has been such a good soldier that he was offered the chance to become an officer. He won his latest award for meritorious service last week.
Three of the most powerful Republicans in Congress -- Sen. Bob Dole, the majority leader and leading GOP presidential candidate; Sen. Phil Gramm, another presidential aspirant; and House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- have expressed strong objections to Americans serving under U.N. command.
And Specialist New's cause has been taken up by right-wing organizations, including the John Birch Society in its New American magazine.
Critics assert that U.N. military command frequently has been ineffective and indecisive, and is driven more by political than tactical priorities. They say U.S. troops become particular targets while on international missions.
Mr. Gramm, in whose Texas constituency the New family lives, told the Christian Coalition last month: "I have two college-age sons, and I would never send them into combat under U.N. command."
Mr. Gramm, who has met Specialist New, and the other GOP leaders have not spoken publicly about his refusal to wear the U.N. uniform.
U.S. troops in Macedonia have to adapt their uniform to U.N. standards and serve under a Finnish general.
The issue is simple, says Specialist New's father, Daniel New: His son signed up to defend the United States and its Constitution in an Army uniform under the American flag, not to serve any international organization.
"If the armed forces of any country can be forced to serve another power against their will, that country is not a free country anymore. In any definition you use, the U.N. is another power," Mr. New said.
In August, when his unit was put on notice that it would be joining the U.N. force in Macedonia, Specialist New immediately told his commanding officer that he was reluctant to serve under the U.N. flag.
Specialist New did not return phone calls to his barracks in Germany, but his father, a landscape designer in Conroe, Texas, said that his son was asking the Army: "How can you force me to serve an organization I never agreed to serve?"
The family's legal adviser, retired Marine Col. Ronald D. Ray, a Crestwood, Ky., attorney, said: "Specialist New stands dishonored for his unswerving devotion and fidelity to America and her Army and remains firm in his conviction that something is fundamentally wrong with this coerced change of uniform and the foreign allegiance it represents."
The Army's response is that the president, as commander in chief, has constitutional and statutory authority to employ U.S. forces in the national interest, including helping the United Nations maintain international peace and security.
Though U.S. forces can come under tactical control of a U.N. commander, the chain of U.S. command from the president to field commanders remains "inviolate," according to an Army briefing paper.
"Thus, the President retains and will never relinquish command over U.S. forces," said the briefing paper, adding that a foreign commander cannot modify the basic mission of U.S. forces, separate U.S. units or divide their supplies, exercise discipline or other forms of administrative control over the assigned U.S. forces.
The Army says U.S. troops attached to the U.N. mission in Macedonia swear no oath of allegiance to the United Nations and that their attachment to Task Force Able Sentry is not an involuntary transfer of allegiance from the U.S. Constitution to the U.N. Charter.
"Until a U.S. soldier is discharged from military service, he or she remains a U.S. soldier, subject to the entire oath of military service. Neither the deployment on a mission in support of the U.N. nor an augmentation of the U.S. Army uniform by the U.N. light blue beret and patch, will alter this commitment."
The United States has contributed troops to 13 of the United Nations' 38 peacekeeping operations since 1948, and now has a total of 3,239 men and women assigned to eight U.N. missions ranging the globe from the Western Sahara to Haiti. The United States is the fourth-largest contributor of U.N. peacekeepers after Britain (8,575), France (7,884) and Pakistan (3,964).