U.S. Military: Letter of Admonishment

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In addition to the more serious discipline tools under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, commanders and supervisors have a diverse set of administrative tools to assist them in correcting inappropriate behavior. Counseling, admonitions, reprimands, and extra training are tools that, while they derive their status and authority from the unit commander, are usually delegated down the chain to the supervisory level.

Such administrative actions are sometimes called "nonpunitive measures." The use of nonpunitive measures is encouraged and, to a degree, defined in the Manual for Court Martial, R.C.M. 306(c)(2), which states:

Administrative action. A commander may take or initiate administrative action, in addition to or instead of other action taken under this rule [e.g., NJP, court-martial], subject to regulations of the Secretary concerned. Administrative actions include corrective measures such as counseling, admonition, reprimand, exhortation, disapproval, criticism, censure, reproach, rebuke, extra military instruction, or the administrative withholding of privileges, or any combination of the above.

Other administrative actions available to a commander include matters related to fitness reports, reassignment, career-field reclassification, administrative reduction for inefficiency, etc.


    Counseling can be good or bad (or neither good nor bad, but rather "informative", "instructive", or "preventative.") Counseling can be formal or informal and can be verbal or in writing.

    A "pat on the back" would be an example of a "good" counseling; its purpose is to reinforce positive behavior.

    A "mild chewing out" would be an example of a "bad" informal counseling, its purpose of preventing a recurrence of inappropriate behavior.

    In truth, most military folks are probably counseled to one degree or other several times per day.

    When most military people think about counseling, however, they usually think about the more formal, written counseling.

    You might hear a military person say, "I received a letter of counseling because I was late for work." This means that the individual's supervisor noted inappropriate behavior, talked to the individual about the behavior, solicited input or a response from the individual concerned, and provided avenues or methods to correct the deficiency. In some of the services, a "letter of counseling" is also known as a " letter of instruction."

    Some of the branches have pre-printed forms to document a counseling session, but many supervisors prefer to document a counseling session using "letter format," hence the name, "Letter of Counseling," or "Letter of Instruction."

    While the effects of a single counseling session are not all that significant, one should be aware that counseling which documents inappropriate behavior can be used against an individual at a later time, for example in support of an administrative demotion action, administrative separation, or in justifying lowered performance evaluations.

    Admonitions and Reprimands

    The only difference between an admonition and a reprimand is the degree of censor.

    A reprimand is more severe than an admonition. As with counseling, admonitions and reprimands can be verbal or can be in writing. When they are in writing, they are often referred to as a " Letter of Reprimand," or a "Letter of Admonition," or sometimes a " Letter of Caution."

    Unlike counseling, admonitions and reprimands are "censors." It means one did something wrong and one is getting chewed out for it. Records of admonitions and reprimands can be filed and later used to justify more serious measures, such as nonjudicial punishment actions, administrative demotions, and administrative separations.

    A note here about providing written responses to counseling, admonitions, and reprimands: Such responses become an attachment to the original document, and if the document is later used to support an administrative demotion or administrative discharge, one's response will be available for view by the approval authority, who may use such response to make a judgment on the person's attitude and professionalism.

    Whining, making excuses, unsubstantiated statements of "unfair," etc., -- while it may make you feel better at the time -- can hurt you later. One should be very careful when providing a written response to counseling, admonitions, and reprimands.

    The same is true about refusing to sign receipt of counseling, admonitions, and reprimands. If you refuse to sign a receipt, if requested, then the issuer will simply write a statement, "Individual was ordered to sign receipt, and refused." That does not look good later if the document is used as part of an administrative demotion or administrative separation package.

    Extra Training (Extra Military Instruction)

    The term "extra military instruction" (EMI) is used to describe the practice of assigning extra tasks to a servicemember who is exhibiting behavioral or performance deficiencies for the purpose of correcting those deficiencies through the performance of the assigned tasks. Normally such tasks are performed in addition to normal duties. Because this kind of leadership technique is more severe than nonpunitive censure, the law has placed some significant restraints on the commander's discretion in this area.

    All EMI involves an order from a superior to a subordinate to do the task assigned. However, it has long been a principle in military law that orders imposing punishment are unlawful and need not be obeyed unless issued pursuant to nonjudicial punishment or a court-martial sentence. Thus, the problem that must be resolved in every EMI situation is whether a valid training purpose is involved or whether the purpose of the EMI is punishment. This can be a tricky issue, and commanders will often receive advice from the JAG before imposing EMI.

    The initial step in analyzing EMI in a given case is to properly identify the deficiency of the subordinate. Consider this example: Seaman Roberts is assigned the responsibility to secure the doors and windows in his office each night, but routinely forgets to secure some of the windows. Although at first glance it would appear that his deficiency is the failure to close windows, a more accurate perception of his deficiency is either a lack of knowledge or a lack of self-discipline -- depending upon the specific reason for the failure. In other words, the "deficiency" refers to shortcomings of character or personality as opposed to shortcomings of action. The act (the failure to close the windows) is an objective manifestation of an underlying character deficiency which may be overcome with EMI.

    Once the deficiency has been identified correctly, the task assigned to correct that deficiency must logically be related to the deficiency noted or the courts will view the order to perform EMI as one imposing punishment. Appellate military courts have relied heavily on this analysis to determine the real purpose of giving an EMI order. It is this criterion that makes it absolutely essential that the superior properly identify the deficiency in terms of a character trait. Few tasks assigned as EMI will be logically related to a deficient act.

    For example, what extra task could be assigned to correct one who inadvertently leaves windows unsecured? Perhaps an assignment to close all the windows in the command area each night for two weeks -- or is that task indicative of a punishment motive? How about close order drill? Close order drill logically has nothing to do with windows. On the other hand, if a failure to close windows is the result of lack of knowledge of one's duty (ignorance being the deficiency), it would not be illogical to require the subordinate to study the pertinent security orders for an hour or two each night until he learns his responsibility. Perhaps the delivery of a short lecture by the individual would demonstrate his new-found knowledge of this responsibility.

    Where the military superior has analyzed the subordinate's deficiency as relating to some trait of character and assigned a task he determined to be correctionally or instructionally related to the deficiency, the military courts have readily accepted the superior's opinion that the task he assigned was logically related to the deficiency he noted in the subordinate. Where the facts show that the superior assigned a task because the subordinate did some unacceptable act, military courts see the assigned task as retaliatory and, hence, view the task as punishment. In the latter situation, the superior cannot help but appear to be reacting to a breach of discipline instead of undertaking valid training.

    Whenever courts or judges try to determine the purpose of an order, they essentially become involved in trying to determine the state of mind of the issuer of the order. Since mind reading is not yet a perfected science, courts look to objective facts which manifest state of mind. Thus, if a character deficiency is identified as being involved in a delinquent act and a task logically related to the correction of that character trait is ordered by the superior, then, as explained above, these facts tend to indicate, in the eyes of the law, that the task assigned was given for training purposes. Equally important as this "logic" test is the language used when the order is given. Seaman Roberts forgets to close the windows, and the superior retaliates with:

    Roberts, you're assigned close order drill for two hours each night. It'll be a long time before you forget to secure a window around here! You'll close your windows or you'll wear a trench in the sidewalk!

      In this example, the words used by the superior make the task assigned look like it was ordered for punishment purposes. Conversely, the task looks more like training when the superior says:

      Roberts, you've been forgetting to secure your windows lately and I know you're familiar with the security considerations involved. This lack of self-discipline is not important in peacetime nor are the windows that important. But, bad habits learned in peacetime can be fatal in war. I am assigning you to close the windows in the command area for seven days. This added responsibility will help you to develop the self-discipline you need to survive in a combat situation.

        Assuming all other factors are indicative of a valid training purpose, EMI may still be construed by the courts as punishment if the quantity of instruction is excessive. Generally, no more than two hours of instruction should be required each day; instruction should not be required on the individual's Sabbath; the duration of EMI should be limited to a period of time required to correct the deficiency; and, after completing each day's instruction, the subordinate should be allowed normal limits of pass or liberty. In this connection, EMI, since it is training, can lawfully interfere with normal hours of pass or liberty. One should not confuse this type of training with a denial of privileges (discussed later), which cannot interfere with normal hours of pass or liberty. The superior must also be careful not to assign instruction at unreasonable hours. What "reasonable hours" are will differ with the normal work schedule of the individual involved, but no great interference with normal hours of pass or liberty should be involved.

        The authority to assign EMI to be performed during working hours is not limited to any particular rank or rate but is an inherent part of the authority vested in officers, NCOs, and petty officers. The authority to assign EMI to be performed after working hours rests in the commanding officer or officer in charge but may be delegated to officers, petty officers, and noncommissioned officers.

        For the Navy, OPNAVINST 3120.32C discusses EMI in detail and clearly states that the delegation of authority to assign EMI outside normal working hours is to be encouraged. Ordinarily, such authority should not be delegated below the chief petty officer (E-7) level. However, in exceptional cases, as where a qualified petty officer is filling a CPO billet in an organizational unit which contains no CPO, authority may be delegated to a mature senior petty officer. There is no Marine Corps or Coast Guard order which is equivalent to the Navy's OPNAVINST 3120.32C; however, the use of nonpunitive measures by officers and noncommissioned officers is discussed in paragraph 1300 of the Marine Corps Manual. Various Army and Air Force publications also discuss appropriate procedures to impose EMI.

        The authority to assign EMI during working hours may be withdrawn by any superior if warranted, and the authority to assign EMI after working hours may be withdrawn by the commanding officer or officer in charge in accordance with the terms contained in the grant of that authority.

        As I said, imposing EMI can be tricky, and there are several military court rulings, which have shown that military supervisors keep misinterpreting the rules from time to time.

        One last point. EMI is not "punishment." Therefore, it is permissible to impose Article 15 proceedings, or even court-martial proceedings for an offense, for punishment, even if EMI was imposed for "training" to correct the deficiency.

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