Daniel Knox, Director, Information Protection 88th Air Base Wing, Wright-Patterson AFB:
For most of us in the Department of Defense, federal service became “real” when we first took an oath to “protect (or support) and defend the Constitution of the United States,” even though many of us may not have fully understood what an oath even was at that point in our lives.
Oaths go far back into history, predating the American Revolution by centuries, and they remain the highest standard of commitment. But why is this oath so important today? What sets us apart from corporate employees who have similar skill sets and jobs, but don’t have to swear an oath?
Oaths have been a part of societies since the dawn of time. Historically, they have been tied to deities or sacred in nature. An oath was the ultimate testament of commitment to a person, ideal or task. Men and women would often die rather than break an oath.
Our oath of office in DOD is administered differently for military officers and enlisted — and incorporated in yet another format for civilian personnel, but all contain the same core elements. The oath is usually the last step in a military or civilian employee’s hiring process, signifying the final opportunity for an individual to decline this commitment to serve.
The public utterance of this commitment is important, not just for the employment process, but all those with whom that employee will serve, as well as for those he or she serves, namely other U.S. citizens.
It is a promise to put the Constitution’s values ahead of personal ambitions. It is a promise to always work toward the goal of bettering the government in which that employee serves by holding to individual values that best serve the intent of that Constitution.
You’ll note there is no step to rescind or retract that oath when you leave government service, because again, it is to the Constitution versus any organization or person. It is also inherently part of being a U.S. citizen. If you look online, you might be surprised at the expectations of naturalized citizens in addition to an almost identical fealty to the Constitution to which you publicly affirm as a government employee.
Using the civilian oath of office as a model, let’s look at its seemingly simple parts:
“I do solemnly swear…”
You are verbally committing, in public and formally before witnesses, to perform to a standard that you consider sacred, honor-bound to hold to this commitment. To break this oath would impugn your personal honor, and possibly that of your family. These are possibly the most important words of our oath. It imbues a personal commitment by you and you alone.
“That I will support/protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…”
You aren’t swearing allegiance to any particular person or office, but to the ideals and values of the codified Constitution, a document held as the gold standard by other countries and the highest law of our land.
“Against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
You vow to protect the law of the land as defined in our Constitution against not just foreign powers threatening our sovereignty, but internal efforts to thwart our constitutional values and articles.
“That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”
You will be faithful to the Constitution’s intent and its articles, and you will hold allegiance to those values versus any person or office of any government or agency. You won’t commit or actively tolerate violations of those articles or the Constitution.
“That I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…”
You know the gravity of your oath, and you have no reservations in committing your support to the Constitution’s ideals, nor are you taking it with intent to deviate from that promise to hold those values sacred on behalf of all Americans to whom you are bound to serve, and to whom you would answer if you broke that oath.
“And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God (optional).”
You close your oath of office with a reaffirmation of your promise to do your duty, and if you wish, even ask God for support.
That’s why our leadership emphasizes the oath so much. It is intended to make you think about not only your role as a citizen but its additional importance when taking the mantle of government service.
If you still don’t understand this, just look around at the missions of this installation and how they directly support the nation’s security on a scale broader than most other bases. Whether you are screening personnel at base-entry points, or a research engineer working on top-secret programs, you have committed to basically the same oath.
You serve the same people, and we all work under the same Constitution. Take time to learn what the Constitution entails if you don’t already know, and embrace the spirit of that document in your daily lives.
The oath of office is a bond between you and the people of this nation, all of whom are here because of our Constitution’s principles. It is also a public, verbal commitment of your role as a citizen while serving our country.
Always remember that your service is important to your fellow Americans who haven’t publicly taken that oath, and they expect a higher level of accountability and performance because of your promise. Serve them, and yourself, well.