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I have heard that wearing parts of a military uniform in the US is technically illegal, even though the law is rarely enforced.

I purchased a military surplus jacket from a thrift store. The front has labels reading "US Army" and a last name across the chest. The shoulders have a unit patch and rank insignia (horizontal black bar for either lieutenant or warrant officer) on the epaulets, but no medals. The camo pattern seems to be ERDL, so it is a jacket that's not been in use for decades.

Could there be any legal repercussions for wearing this in the US (I am not affiliated with the military), without any other military clothing (eg. with civilian pants)? Is it necessary to remove the nametag and other insignia?

  • "Is it necessary to remove the nametag" Even if it weren't required under law, it would be the decent thing to do. Wearing an old uniform is one thing, wearing it with name and insignia would give you credit you didn't deserve. – Mast May 20 at 5:04
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Note that the original Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it an offense to falsely claim to have been awarded any US military medal or decoration, or to wear such without authorization, was ruled unconstitutional in United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012). The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes this an offense only if done for profit.

As described in this Law.se Q&A, United States vs Hamilton (2012) limited the law against wearing military uniform without authorization to cases where it is done with intent to deceive (at least in the Fourth Circuit, but I suspect that the same rule would be applied throughout the country).

  • Alvarez is surely relevant given the relation to the first amendment, but my question has nothing to do with medals. – Consis May 17 at 16:03
  • @Consis The SVA was mentioned in the answer by sleske, and uniforms that come with insignia might also come with medals. – David Siegel May 17 at 16:38
  • I figured it's pretty obvious from the question that there's no medals, but let me edit and clarify in case anyone else gets confused. – Consis May 17 at 16:52
  • @Consis Yes, I I was trying to add something that others with similar concerns might wish to know. – David Siegel May 17 at 17:55
  • @Consis If it applies to medals, I'd hazard a guess and say it applies to ranks even more so. – Mast May 20 at 5:05
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Could there be any legal repercussions for wearing this in the US (I am not affiliated with the military), without any other military clothing (eg. with civilian pants)? Is it necessary to remove the nametag and other insignia?

Yes, according to the law wearing a US military uniform is prohibited unless you have explicit permission (usually by being in the military):

Except as otherwise provided by law, no person except a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps, as the case may be, may wear—

(1) the uniform, or a distinctive part of the uniform, of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps; or

(2) a uniform any part of which is similar to a distinctive part of the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps.

10 U.S. Code § 771. Unauthorized wearing prohibited

The penalty is up to six months imprisonment:

Whoever, in any place within the jurisdiction of the United States or in the Canal Zone, without authority, wears the uniform or a distinctive part thereof or anything similar to a distinctive part of the uniform of any of the armed forces of the United States, Public Health Service or any auxiliary of such, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

18 U.S. Code § 702. Uniform of armed forces and Public Health Service

Exceptions to this rule are listed in § 772. When wearing by persons not on active duty authorized. These are mostly the exceptions you would except (retired military personnel, actors in a performance, civilians working with the military or attending a military school...).

In addition to that, there is legislation that specifically outlaws claiming to have earned medals or awards - for example, the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which makes it a crime to fraudulently claim having received an award. So adding a medal to your uniform could cause additional problems, at least if the prosecution thinks you did it to defraud others by claiming to have received the medal rightfully.

Some things that may save you:

  • In practice, it is, as usual, at the discretion of the district attorney whether a violation will actually be prosecuted.
  • Courts have ruled that the exception for actors must be interpreted generously, so for example Halloween costumes may be covered under that exception.
  • The law specifially forbids wearing "the uniform, or a distinctive part of the uniform". So as long as you only wear a part of the uniform (e.g. only the jacket), you are safe, unless the part is considered to be "distinctive". There are specific regulations on that (no source handy right now), but basically only the decorative or rank elements are "distinctive" (badges, tabs, buttons, medals, ribbons, headgear etc.). The purely "functional" items (such as jackets, backpacks, boots etc.) are probably safe (but no guarantees from me, obviously!).

That said, there have been successful prosecutions for violating §771, especially if the court judged it was done specifically to denigrate the US armed forces.


Finally, note that there are additional regulations around uniforms in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (which applies to members of the armed forces), so as an active soldier, you may face additional consequences.

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    The Stolen Valor Act of 2013, as noted in the page you link to, only applies to fraudulent claims "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit." – phoog May 17 at 14:45
  • Is the US Coast guard included in any of the above? – DJohnM May 17 at 20:12
  • @phoog: You're right. I edited to make this clear. Feel free to re-edit to clarify. – sleske May 18 at 8:51
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    To the downvoters: I'd appreciate a comment if you believe this answer is wrong or unhelpful. – sleske May 18 at 8:51
  • @DJohnM Interesting point. I think you should post it as a question. 10 USC §101(a)(4) says, 'The term "armed forces" means the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard' so it's probably significant that §771 lists four branches explictly and omits the USCG rather than just saying referring to "the armed forces". – David Richerby May 18 at 14:57

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