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Will Trump end bread and water?

July 13, 2017 (Photo Credit: Photo illustration by Sarah-Catherine Smith/Military Times)
Confinement in the brig on bread and water is arguably the most antiquated and arcane punishment since walking the plank.  

But whether it will continue to be a disciplinary option for today's Navy commanders now lies in the hands of President Donald Trump.

The non-judicial punishment is exactly what it sounds like: Sailors at the rank of E-3 and below, attached to or embarked on a vessel, can be confined for up to three days and fed nothing but bread and water under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“It’s an effective punishment, because it sucks,” said Zack Spilman, a military law expert and Marine Corps Reserve judge advocate who defends servicemembers in courts-martial and appeals.

Eliminating bread and water is one of several changes to the military justice system recommended by a group of legal experts brought together by the Pentagon in 2013.

The changes were approved as part of last year's defense bill but require Trump to issue implementing regulations by Dec. 23, 2017 and the new regs must take effect by Jan. 1, 2019.

What happens to those reforms should the president fail to act remains a gray area, according to defense officials.

The Pentagon has posted the Manual for Courts-Martial revisions and a draft presidential executive order for public review and comment. They comprise the most significant changes to military law in roughly 30 years.

The White House did not respond to a Navy Times request for comment on whether Trump intends to sign off on the changes. 

Other than eliminating the bread-and-water provision, the reforms awaiting presidential perusal include changes to guilty pleas, sentences and plea agreements, among others, said Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman.

The reforms also seek to modernize criminal offenses by enacting several computer-related crimes and establishing a panel to recommend military justice system improvements.


But nothing on that list carries the outlandish legacy, or carb load, of eliminating confinement on bread and water.

Sailors say it's a punitive measure that some of today's commanders still turn to, but Navy officials said they do not track how often bread and water is meted out across the fleet. 

Commanders can impose bread and water only when the sailor is medically cleared, according to the Navy’s Corrections Manual, and such sailors will not be removed from their cell for work or any exercise during the punishment.

“The amount of bread and water shall not be restricted and will be served three times daily at the normal time of meals,” the manual states.

The experts who drafted the legal changes did not note in their recommendations report exactly why bread and water should be phased out.

But they wrote that they had “confidence in the ability of commanders in a modern era to administer effective discipline through the utilization of a wide range of punishments otherwise available under Article 15 and other non-punitive measures.”

Spilman, the military defense attorney, tracked the military justice reforms for years and said he also saw no formal reason given by the group for eliminating bread and water.

“I’ve never experienced it, and I’ve never had a client who experienced it, but it has long been regarded as an effective punishment because of how miserable it is,” he said. “And it’s historic.”

The group probably recommended its elimination because of its decidedly un-modern nature, Spilman said.

"You could be nostalgic to keep the old ways, but they're getting rid of it," he said.

Retired Navy Admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis said “it’s about time” the military did away with the punishment.

“In my time as a CO, I never used bread and water,” he said in an email. “Even two decades ago, it seemed a really anachronistic, dumb sort of sanction.”

When bread and water entered the command disciplinary toolkit remains unclear, but retired Cmdr. David Winkler of the Naval Historical Foundation said it likely was enacted in the mid-19 th century.

Back then, the sea service was phasing out flogging as a punishment and might have wanted a replacement, he said.

Winkler recalled checking on a sailor confined on bread and water at the Philadelphia Navy Yard when he was assigned to the ammunition ship Suribachi in the 1980s.

He showed up just as the guards prepared the sailor’s chow.

“It was raisin bread,” Winkler recalled. “The Marine guards were there with tweezers, pulling out the raisins before they served it to the poor prisoner.”

Winkler said bread and water was a popular punishment aboard America’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley, commissioned in the early 1920s.

“Going through the logs of the USS Langley back in the 20s, they had a brig and the captain meted the punishment out all the time,” he said.

Winkler recalled reading about how the brig was below the galley, and how friends of the confined sailors would pass food down through the portholes.

“They were in amazement that those sailors were gaining weight while on bread and water,” he said.

Like many Navy men and women, Winkler loves the sea service’s traditions.

Still, he conceded, “it is kind of time” to do away with the punishment.

“The other services don’t have such a thing,” he said. “For the sake of conformity throughout the military establishment, it’s probably time to go.”

Are you a sailor who has received the bread and water punishment? What was it like? Email geoffz@militarytimes.com to share your story. 

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