Keep White Supremacists Out of the Military by Never Letting Them In

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Ku Klux Klan member waves a Klan flag
In this Sept. 1, 2018 photo, a Ku Klux Klan member waves a Klan flag during the Ku Klux Kookout where counter protests by anti-hate groups were also held at Jaycee Park in Madison, Ind. (Michelle Pemberton/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

Chris Marvin is a former Army helicopter pilot and combat-wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He consults with nonprofits on how to engage veterans on high-priority social issues.

They stormed the Capitol wearing camouflage fatigues, body armor, tactical helmets and zip-tie restraints. Clearly, many amongst the domestic terrorists who attacked the United States in Washington on Jan. 6 fetishized the military. Now, we have learned that nearly one in five of the insurrectionists arrested thus far are, in fact, military veterans.

The military-to-civilian ratio among the mob actually outpaces that of veterans in Congress, but just barely. The 91 veterans in the House and Senate make up 17% of those serving. In both groups -- the attackers and the members of Congress they were attacking -- veterans are significantly overrepresented compared to the 7% of American adults who have served in the military.

How is it that military service yields such extremes? The answer may be different based on which extreme we examine.

For centuries, the military has molded young men and women into leaders. In just a few months, a recent high school graduate can become a high-functioning, respectable soldier.

After service, veterans are more likely to be good citizens than typical civilians. According to multiple studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, veterans are more likely to vote, volunteer in their communities, join civic organizations, and help their neighbors. Empirically, military service develops civilians into civic assets. From the halls of Congress to corporate suites to nonprofit boardrooms across the country, we see examples of veterans giving back to the nation they once defended in uniform.

Each year, a quarter-million men and women from every corner of America -- mostly teenagers -- arrive at military boot camp, bringing with them all the baggage and challenges of a divided country. But military service is not a panacea for a broken society; military training is not a remedy for a damaged soul.

The military has recently come under fire as a harbor for violent extremists. According to Military Times, more than one-third of active service members have witnessed white nationalism or ideological-driven racism inside the military.

While the military has taken steps meant to root out white supremacists from its ranks, such as prohibiting military personnel from "advocating supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine, ideology or causes," military leaders must also step back and reexamine the services' recruiting and initial training processes to prevent those who espouse any form of hatred from joining.

Entry standards for the military are so high that only 29% of Americans aged 17 to 24 are eligible to join. While the largest portion of this group is excluded because of health reasons -- particularly obesity -- the military also rejects applicants based on behavioral characteristics, such as criminal convictions, certain mental health disorders, and low academic achievement.

What military recruiting has not figured out yet -- or at least has not implemented -- is how to deny initial entry for recruits who show signs of hate-based extremism. Thus, short of a criminal incident in a recruit's past, an avowed white supremacist would face little friction enlisting.

In fact, it is well established that domestic terrorist organizations and extremist groups send members into the military to receive tactical training and gain access to weapons.

"The number of extremists in the military has increased due to a higher percentage of white supremacists attempting to join the military," Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League told Congress last year.

Put simply: The Department of Defense must become better at keeping white supremacists from joining the military, full stop.

Research into post-traumatic stress disorder has shown that certain preexisting conditions in an individual's upbringing or pre-military life can make a service member more susceptible to PTSD. That is not to say that the military should bar people with these backgrounds from service, but it's important to understand that it isn't necessarily the military experience or combat exposure alone that causes conditions like PTSD.

Likewise, if the DoD were so inclined, an analysis of known white supremacists in the ranks could start to illuminate the kinds of red flags in pre-military life that make radicalization more likely.

While the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act does include new requirements for how federal agencies deal with white supremacy and domestic terrorism, it is still unclear how it will impact military recruiting. Moreover, the rise in extremist views and activities across the country does not make the jobs of military recruiters any easier. And certainly, the explicit support for hate groups by the former commander in chief flies in the face of any DoD efforts to stem such sentiments amongst service members.

In short, an overhaul of the military recruiting system is overdue. A couple of Marine Corps sergeants strolling around a shopping center talking to 17-year-olds at random is no longer efficient. Nor can military recruiters sit back at their strip mall storefronts and wait for people to walk in and sign on the dotted line.

With advances in technology and support from federal intelligence agencies, the military recruiting process is getting more sophisticated. And with an increase in available information and resources, recruiters can place more focus on keeping hate out of the military.

New recruits endure months of training and pass numerous thresholds, before the military considers putting a rifle in their hands and sending them overseas. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to also make certain they were never a part of any group that practices acts of hate or advocates for the violent overthrow of the United States government.

We deserve a military where Americans can serve in uniform without fear of hate based on race, sexual orientation or gender identity. We demand a military that produces civic leaders, not leaders of revolt, sedition and insurrection. We expect a military that is worthy of the trust and respect the nation has for it, and that means zero tolerance for white supremacy.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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