Coastie faces military’s highest court for sharing disrespectful memes

Petty Officer 3rd Class Aidan Cooney

A U.S. Coast Guardsman faced the military’s highest court yesterday for sending disrespectful texts to other service members, inciting questions over the consequences of distributing inappropriate messages to fellow troops on duty.

Chief Machinery Technician Fernando Brown, who was stationed with the Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star, was previously convicted for the series of communications that took place during the summer of 2019, court documents showed.

The messages in question were a series of memes — typically a humorous photo or video — that Brown sent while in dry dock in Vallejo, California, to three unnamed chief petty officers in a group chat named “Chief’s Mess.”

The first message, according to proceedings, featured an image of a fellow Coast Guardsman from her high school yearbook alongside the caption, “[v]oted most likely to steal your bitch.”

A second message included an image of a “scantily” dressed man with Dallas Cowboys body paint, according to court documents, and a caption suggesting it was the reason another member of the chat missed a recent Chief’s Call.

The final message was a photograph of the last member of the chat, with “crudely drawn male genitalia” on his hard hat.

Following the texts, some in the chat testified that they felt victimized, while others said they did not find the memes to be personally disrespectful.

For his actions, Brown received an initial sentence in 2020 of a reduction in rank from E-7 to E-4, 30 days of restriction and a reprimand. That sentence was upheld by the U.S. Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals in 2022.

The outcome of this case could more strongly define the standards of conduct service members must follow when communicating with one another.

In court, Brown’s defense argued he did not violate Article 91 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, saying his conduct did not occur in the presence of the other petty officers or while they were performing their duties.

“There is no evidence as to what any of the victims were doing at that time,” Scott Hockenberry argued. “The only evidence is what they were doing at some undefined later time when they read the messages.”

Prosecutors disagreed, adding that the petty officers felt pressured to be a part of the chat to fulfill their work assignments.

“[T]he facts indicate that the ... victims were accessing the text message string for the purpose of seeking out work related information,” Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Halsig said during the hearing, adding that one of the “victims” testified that he created the group chat for work purposes.

Brown enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2002, according to bio information shared by his attorneys with Military Times. He served on the Polar Star as the Main Propulsion and Auxiliary Chief between July 2018 and November 2020 before transitioning to his current role in the Naval Engineering Department at Coast Guard Base Seattle.

“Petty officer Brown is a man that loves his country, loves his service and he would never ... do anything to deliberately upset or disrupt anybody’s morale, the morale of the unit, the cohesiveness of the unit,” Brian Pristera, another attorney for Brown, told Military Times on a phone call. “To the extent that that occurred in his case, that’s certainly regrettable; however, that doesn’t mean that it’s criminal.”

Pristera said he expects to hear a decision from the court by May or June.

Halsig later told Military Times via email that “[p]articularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of interaction between service members via digital means of communication has dramatically increased,” making the outcome of the case that much more important.