From Texas Public Radio:
In the two decades he spent in the Air Force, Maurice Geeter said he never saw radical displays of extremism.
“The most I’ve seen, and this was — we’re talking back in the late 90s — you may be in the dorms or the barracks and someone might have a Confederate flag hanging up.”
Geeter, who is Black, worked as a personnelist in multiple theaters and combat zones. He would sometimes ask his fellow airmen about why they chose to put the symbol on their walls.
“As you talked to the person, they had other reasons for having it up,” he said. “Just a Southern culture thing. Not necessarily that they were looking to be violent or overthrow the government.”
But as society changed, Geeter stopped seeing those flags or other symbols of hate displayed openly in the Air Force. So when rioters in support of former President Donald Trump swarmed the Capitol, he was stunned – especially when he learned that many of them had military ties.
“We were all in shock and disbelief,” he said.
Geeter, who is now a civilian employee of the 502nd Air Base Wing at Joint Base San Antonio, noted that, while people he talks to on base have different political views, they agree on a few things:
“That storming the Capitol was the wrong thing to do, was the wrong way to go about getting your message across,” he said. “For those of us who were veterans or who are currently serving, we kind of felt like they dishonored their oath and their commitment to this country.”
Expanding the dialogue
Top military leaders wanted to make sure similar conversations were happening across the ranks. In early February, Austin ordered units large and small to hold stand down events on extremism and what it means to serve. They’ve happened across the country over the last several weeks.
Although the problem of domestic extremism has rankled the military for some time, it is difficult to determine how big of an issue it actually is. The Defense Department doesn’t track service members who have been investigated for domestic terrorism or extremism. The same is true for the individual military branches.
In a January briefing, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the FBI opened 143 investigations into troops and veterans in 2020, 68 of which were for domestic extremism. A Military Times poll released in 2020 found that more than a third of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members had personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism within the ranks in the preceding months.
In late March, a cohort of group commanders from the 502d Air Base Wing gathered in a conference room at Fort Sam Houston to try and tackle the issue. Brig. Gen. Caroline Miller, JBSA commander, opened the briefing.
“Okay, so goals for today: We’re going to review and discuss the Oath of Office,” she said. “Then we’re going to talk about impermissible behaviors. What are they? Everyone talks about that, but what does that mean? There’s a continuum of those. So we’ll work through that continuum.”
She told the two dozen-some commanders that extremism is harmful to military units because it undercuts trust.
“We have to make sure that we trust each other,” Miller said, “So that, when the time comes — if something catastrophic is going on — you trust your neighbor. If there’s bias, if there’s racism, then it’s not going to work.”
The stand downs didn’t all look the same. But most talked through different ways of identifying extremists and ran through scenarios — as well as what constitutes ‘active participation’ in an extremist group. Others went over hate symbols, like the swastika, and tactics used by conspiracy theory groups like QAnon.
Geeter took part in a stand down too. His group talked through a situation where a service member was using a government network to look at extremist content on his cell phone.
“So that initiated a conversation: If I were to walk into that room with this individual watching this video, how would I react?” he said.
Defining and reporting extremism
The Department of the Air Force calls extremism “a common belief which might otherwise be politically or socially acceptable, but which espouses the use or threat of force or violence to obtain their goals.” A supremacist doctrine, ideology, or cause is characterized by a fundamental tenet “that particular members of one race, color, gender, national origin, or ethnic group are genetically superior to others.”
But there is still a lot of grey area. During congressional hearings in 2020, military investigators struggled to clarify the rules around extremist behavior.
“I don’t know that you can really just pinpoint all of the red flags that someone can exhibit,” said Master Sgt. Victoria Yale, the superintendent for the 502d Air Base Wing Commanders Action Group. “Sometimes I think you can be wrong. How do you identify them without being stereotypical or having some unconscious bias?”
Yale added that it’s important for service members to elevate their concerns about extremism and ask for help when they’re uncertain.
According to a statement from Miller, extremist behavior is reportable to an individual’s chain of command starting with their supervisor, or next level supervisor and commander. When that’s not feasible, service members should approach the Equal Opportunity Office, the Inspector General or the Office of Special Investigations.
“Sometimes just simply trusting your gut instinct can be enough to just open the door a little bit and say, ‘This is how I feel. I don’t feel right about this. I don’t know if it’s anything,’” Yale said. “But I think it’s worth asking the question.”
Though Yale said she hadn’t seen any examples of extremism while in service, she said she would be more vigilant in the future.