SecDef Gives Military Services 60 Days to Hold Stand-Down on Extremism in the Ranks

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Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III poses for a photo.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III poses for a photo after being sworn in as secretary of defense, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2021. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

Within the next 60 days, each of the military services will take time out of daily duties to discuss the problem of extremism and extremist ideology in the ranks, as military leaders seek to get a better sense of how widespread these belief systems are.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III ordered the stand-down Wednesday morning in a meeting with all the military service secretaries and service chiefs, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in an afternoon briefing. Kirby called the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riots at the U.S. Capitol, and the fact that many of those arrested were military veterans or currently serving, a "wake-up call" for Lloyd and the Defense Department.

Lloyd, Kirby said, stressed to his military leaders that he believed the vast majority of those in uniform serve honorably and do not espouse the "kind of beliefs leading to the kinds of conduct that would be so detrimental to good order and discipline."

But, he said of extremists in the military, "although their numbers may be small, they may not be as small as we would like them to be or we would need them to be."

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It's not immediately clear how the stand-down will be structured or what each service and the tenant commands and units within will be required to do. More information is coming, Kirby said.

"We owe the force, we owe these leaders some training materials and some deeper, more specific guidance about how to conduct [the stand-down], what the expectations are and thoughts about how feedback can be provided," he said.

The new focus on extremism comes on the heels of recent efforts by the services to address racial inequalities and sexual harassment in the ranks. NPR reported that one in five defendants in cases linked to the Jan. 6 Capitol assault had ties to the military, a disproportionate number in that veterans make up only about 7% of the U.S. population.

Kirby indicated that leaders believe the number of those with right-wing extremist beliefs inside the military is small, although he added that it's difficult to track: While active participation in organizations deemed to be gangs or hate groups violates military policy, membership in the same groups is permitted and troops' belief systems are not policed.

"One of the challenges and one of the reasons we're trying to do this is, we don't know the full breadth and depth of it," he said. "We don't want to overestimate or underestimate the number. It may be more than [we believe] and probably a lot less than the media [makes it out to be]."

Austin, who became secretary of defense Jan. 22, may be mulling additional orders to the services in the near future aimed at promoting equality and addressing problems with the culture.

"I don't think at this point he's ruling anything out," Kirby said. "He made it clear to the leadership that he's still mulling how he wants to organize this and how he wants to attack it from an institutional perspective."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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