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The Military Confronts Extremism, One Conversation At A Time

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits National Guard troops deployed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 29. The troops were deployed in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Under Austin's order, all military units are holding "stand downs" to discuss extremism in the ranks.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits National Guard troops deployed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 29. The troops were deployed in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Under Austin's order, all military units are holding "stand downs" to discuss extremism in the ranks.

On a recent weekday, some three dozen Marines and civilians filed into an auditorium at Henderson Hall, a Marine support center on a hill above the Pentagon.

They were there to talk about extremism in the ranks.

They reviewed their oath to defend against any enemy foreign or domestic, learned about active service members arrested for stockpiling weapons as members of neo-Nazi and other extremist groups, and took part in a wide-ranging discussion that included race, values and how to report suspicious activity.

When Lloyd Austin became defense secretary, he called for these sessions, or "stand downs." These discussions were prompted by the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 following a speech by then-President Donald Trump and the presence there of some military veterans.

More than 300 people at the Capitol that day have been arrested, and around 15% have former military ties, according to an NPR analysis. About 7% of U.S. adults are veterans, according to the Census Bureau.

"This is not about politics or political views," Austin said last week, after leading a discussion with noncommissioned officers at the Pentagon. "It's about our values and reaffirming the oath we all took. Our values define who we are."

Dearth of statistics

Austin is quick to say those within the ranks who act on extremist views are small in number. Still, there are few statistics outlining the extent of extremism among military members.

During the past three years, the Marine Corps found 16 cases of substantiated extremism, mostly postings on social media. The FBI told the Defense Department last year that it opened 143 investigations involving mostly former military members. About half had to do with domestic extremism.

Add to that a 2019 Military Times poll that found 36% of respondents reporting evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military.

Austin, a retired four-star Army general, witnessed extremism himself as a young officer with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1990s.

Young soldiers in the division, members of an underground band of neo-Nazi skinheads, shot and murdered two Black pedestrians in nearby Fayetteville.

"We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for," Austin said during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. "But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to — but we learned from that."

Experts who monitor the military's checkered history with tracking extremism aren't surprised by that statement and say leaders on the ground haven't been given the tools to track this kind of activity.

"They have to make sure that anyone who is in a position to report this stuff is doing so, that the information is captured," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "Their own investigators haven't been clear, in hearings in 2020, on what the rules are. I mean a lot needs to be done to fix this problem in the military."

Beirich said investigators in each branch need to work together. Right now, she said, they don't have a database of extremist tattoos and symbols. They are still working on a policy to monitor social media for extremist activity. Often they rely instead on outside law enforcement. The Navy's top cop told Congress in February that all its active cases for domestic terrorism were referrals from the FBI.

A new topic

1st Lt. Madeline Hoffman, who's in charge of a Marine infantry logistics unit at Twentynine Palms, Calif., was about to run her own stand down on extremism and acknowledged the topic was something fairly new.

"Specifically, extremism hasn't been a major talking point," she said.

Then she recalled watching the storming of the Capitol on TV.

"Yeah, that was tough as a service member to see," she said. "Personal opinions aside, I take that very seriously. I want to make our Marines understand that that type of activity is contrary to our oath."

An NPR reporter interviewed one militia member at the Capitol on the day of the riot who said he served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. A few Marine Corps flags were flying that day.

The Marines under Hoffman's command say they felt the military's reputation for being apolitical has been under siege for a while. Part of that may be the approach of former President Donald Trump, who talked about "my generals" and "my military" and claimed during a visit to an Army base that many there voted for him.

Last June, Trump went across the street from the White House to Lafayette Square with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, in tow. Trump held up a Bible during a photo op at St. John's Church while surrounded by his aides, although Milley peeled off and was not present for the photo, opting to talk with National Guard troops.

Still, the damage was done, and Milley apologized for appearing at what was clearly a political event.

"I should not have been there," the general said later in a taped message to troops. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Growth of militias

Meanwhile, extremist groups, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, continue to expand, and some actively recruit those with military experience.

During the stand down at Henderson Hall, a Marine officer warned about recruiting efforts by militia groups, which want the weapons and organizing skills of former service members.

They were warned about social media and the "garbage" that can show up on various sites.

When a Marine officer asked if there was a problem of extremism or racism within the Marine Corps, nearly one-third of those present raised a hand.

Most everyone raised a hand when asked if such a problem exists in society at large, with one female Marine officer saying not all civilians share "our values."

One Black civilian — a former Marine — said it's important to have a diverse military to deal with these issues. More minority officers are needed, he said.

"We can't have a good old boys network anymore," he said.

At Twentynine Palms, Marine Cpl. David Dorsey said he hasn't encountered people who are in extremist groups but has seen bigotry and racial stereotypes among his fellow Marines.

"I feel like it's not going to be a quick turnaround. Usually nothing ever is when you're trying to change a wide range of people," he said. "Do we work on fixing it? Yes, but it's a slow-going thing. It's not going to change immediately."

Defining extremism

The stand downs were complicated by confusion about what is acceptable and what is not. Under current military regulations dating to 2012, a service member can still be a member of an extremist organization but cannot actively participate through such activities as recruiting, fundraising and distributing materials.

That fact stymied the Marine officer leading the discussion at Henderson Hall. He initially doubted that was in the regulations and then said he would consult a military lawyer if such a case came before him.

Add to that some other potential problems involving the military that would not be present among the general public.

Some Republican members of Congress still question the presidential election results, even though there's no evidence that last fall's race was rigged or stolen, as they claim. Still, many Trump supporters continue to question President Biden's win and add the words "Stop the Steal" to pendants, signs and T-shirts.

But what if a service member wore such a T-shirt? Does he mean he's calling the commander in chief illegitimate? If that's the case, it could violate military law.

"If I saw a Marine wearing a T-shirt like that, I would certainly have a conversation with him about it," said the Marine officer leading the discussion at Henderson Hall. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "The context would be even more important. So at a baseline, I don't think it's appropriate, but where they're wearing it could make it even less appropriate."

Austin's own stand-down discussion led to some "candid conversations," said his spokesman, John Kirby, and Austin plans on discussing the issues with the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week.

Kirby also said the defense secretary wants a continual focus on extremism in the ranks, adding that it all comes down to leadership, something officials should be thinking about and acting on every single day.

"I see the stand downs as a good wake-up call," says Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "And hopefully there will be serious discussions in every branch at every level."

Still, she's concerned that if the stand downs aren't backed up by tangible changes, they will send the wrong message to the rank and file of the military.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.