Defense secretary aims to rid military of extremism

Retired general with South Georgia roots discusses renaming Fort Benning and Fort Gordon
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III met with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, and senior leaders at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 29. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Erica Jaros

Credit: 715th Public Affairs Detachment

Credit: 715th Public Affairs Detachment

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III met with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, and senior leaders at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 29. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Erica Jaros

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said Thursday he would begin a top-level review of efforts to stamp out extremism among servicemembers, a thorny challenge that recently prompted him to order a military-wide “stand down.”

The retired four-star Army general from South Georgia, confirmed last month as the nation’s first Black defense secretary, wants military leaders to know what to look for and to make sure “our servicemembers are reminded of what we are about, reminded of the values that we hold dear in this organization.” Austin predicted success for the stand down, which is expected to allow discussions among troops for at least a day about what is prohibited and how to report suspected extremism.

“I will also do a more thorough review at my level to make sure that I have the right policies and procedures in place at the department level to ensure that we are empowering our servicemembers, our leaders, to be able to ensure we have healthy climates,” Austin said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a forthcoming article about him for Black History Month.

Austin’s moves come amid reports that more than 20 of those who participated in the deadly Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol are current servicemembers or veterans. Afterward, the National Guard removed 12 troops from inauguration security duty, including two who made antigovernment statements.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Austin vowed to “rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.”

“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

On Thursday, Austin revisited his time as a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1995, when the military disclosed 22 members of the unit had connections to extremist groups. The division began its investigation after three soldiers were charged with the racist murders of two Black civilians in Fayetteville, The Washington Post reported.

“As we looked into that, we found that some of the signs that would tell us people had these kinds of concerns and were being radicalized were there. We just didn’t pay attention to them,” he told The AJC. “I know that kind of activity can have some pretty tough effects on high-performing units.”

Information on the extent of the problem in the military today is scarce. Austin ordered the stand down partly to get a handle on that.

“One of the challenges here and one of the reasons why he wants to do this is we don’t know the full breadth and depth of it,” Pentagon Press John Kirby told reporters last week.

Kirby stressed “the vast majority of men and women who serve in uniform in the military are doing so with honor and integrity and character, and do not espouse the sorts of beliefs that lead to the kind of conduct that can be so detrimental to good order and discipline and in fact is criminal.”

More than a third of all active duty troops have witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism within the ranks, according to a 2019 online survey of 1,630 active duty troops by the Military Times and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Some of those surveyed said they had seen swastikas on servicemembers’ cars, tattoos connected to white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi-style salutes between people.

Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said about 15.6% of a sample of 1,534 people who were arrested in the United States up until 2018 for crimes motivated by extremist beliefs were veterans or were serving in the military. In 2018, about 7% of Americans were veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Pentagon could get a better idea of the size of its problem by training military personnel how to identify and respond to signs of extremism, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“Certainly, the willingness and the desire to deal with this is good,” Pitcavage said of Austin’s initial efforts. “I’m cautiously optimistic that with all of this we may be able to get some of the institutional reforms we have sought for the military for quite some time.”

Also Thursday, Austin said about 40% of those serving in the military are people of color and that he wants to make sure “the leadership reflects what is in the ranks.” President Biden underscored that task during a speech at the Pentagon Wednesday, saying “it’s long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our force is reflected at every level of this department, including our secretary of defense.”

Asked about efforts to rename military bases that honor Confederates, Austin said he would follow the legal process outlined by Congress, which has created an eight-member commission. Two military installations in Georgia are named after Confederate figures, Fort Benning and Fort Gordon.

“What I want to do is make sure I respect the process and the intent of the law because it is a law. So as a part of this I will name four commissioners to this commission very soon,” Austin said. “Of course, this is important work, critical work, and it is work I fully support.”


Age: 67

Born: Aug. 8, 1953, in Mobile, Ala.

Early life: Austin grew up in Thomasville, Ga., where he graduated from high school in 1971.

Education: U.S. Military Academy, Auburn University and Webster University

Career: Austin rose to become a four-star general in the Army and retired in 2016 as the chief of U.S. Central Command, a role from which he oversaw U.S. military operations across the Middle East for three years.