The Military Was Combating Racism. Then, Congress Stepped In.

Christian Maynor replaces the Lee Boulevard street sign at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
Christian Maynor replaces the Lee Boulevard street sign with the Victory Boulevard sign at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 26, 2023. Previously named Lee Boulevard after Gen. Robert E. Lee, the street received a new moniker after nearly 61 years of tribute to the Confederate officer. (Anna Nolte/U.S. Air Force)

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

The U.S. military will continue to dwindle in size and diminish in quality if it does not fix its racism problem.

My husband has served nearly 20 years in the Marine Corps, and our family would gladly dedicate another decade of service if not for the racism I, his Asian-American wife, and his mixed-race children experience in the current military and political climate.

My spouse is highly skilled and experienced. He has 2,000 flight hours, top-level clearances and qualifications. He has mentored, instructed and led hundreds of others. He loves military service, yet he and others like him are leaving due to Congress' meddling. After decades of progress toward building a more equal nation and a military reflective of these American values, we see those gains evaporating.

Policymakers have come to use increasingly politicized antics to enforce an anti-pluralism agenda. For example, Republican senators continue to hold Air Force Col. Ben Jonsson's promotion hostage -- mirroring Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville's months-long military promotion blockade. Col. Jonsson simply encouraged his fellow officers to learn about modern-day racism -- knowledge that would strengthen leadership skills, and U.S. senators targeted him.

Congressional interference in the nonpartisan military promotions process has rippling consequences. Col. Jonsson's family life is in limbo between their current and future duty stations, without an anticipated move date -- medical care, education plans and the details of daily life remaining suspended.

Every level and rank is watching this drama unfold, wondering whether the military can function on the most basic level while partisan congressional members use the military as political pawns for their own agenda. Folks who care about upholding the military to a standard of operation and humanity, who care about morale and building trust among troops, who will speak out against something as basic and fact-based as racism, wonder whether they will be targeted next. Junior service members lose confidence in leadership. Many will hesitate to extend their time in service and not recommend this vocation to others, given what they've experienced.

I have been racially profiled by military gate guards, local law enforcement and random neighbors demanding extra verification that I am permitted to be in various locations more times than I can count. When my white husband traveled to our new duty station in advance for house hunting, local real-estate agents made racist remarks about people of color in certain neighborhoods, steering him instead to neighborhoods with all-white country clubs.

These examples are minuscule compared to the recent fatal shooting of Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson in Florida. They all factor into my family's consideration of safety while serving in the military. The Department of Defense (DoD) lacks sufficient policies or procedures to support families of color; our current Congress wants to keep it that way.

In 2016, 55% of service members would recommend military service to our children; today, only 32% would. Moreover, twice as many of us (31%) are unlikely or would not recommend military service at all today, compared to 2016 (15%).

Approximately 80% of service members hail from military families themselves. The military depends on veterans to recruit future generations of service members. Further, the military depends on retention to maintain expertise necessary to fight wars and save lives, not to mention save on training costs. So these trends beg the question: Who will recruit, enter and make up our military in future years?

The ones who feel safest and will remain in the military are the ones who cater to these partisan attacks. Over time, these political games will reshape the U.S. military's internal culture; rather than a broad workplace that upholds respect, equality and fair treatment, the military will shrink into a haven for prejudicial beliefs instead.

The military will not be able to recruit or retain the best talent. The most skilled will leave for more functional and less toxic institutions, my family included.

Attacks on crucial DoD programs indicate to us that certain politicians will sabotage any of the military's efforts toward self-improvement. In 2023, the House of Representatives passed a version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with 18 provisions targeting diversity and inclusion initiatives within the DoD; two provisions became law. Congress is forcing our military to swing away from reality and progress.

Military families of color make up nearly half of our armed forces. We exist. We dedicate our lives to this country. And we experience racism within the military and the surrounding civilian community in which we live. We voice how these experiences impact the workplace climate and our quality of life to positively shape this community for future generations. We propose solutions at every opportunity, like in NDAA amendments.

We consider racial/ethnic discrimination when deciding whether to remain in service. We evaluate whether our leaders and the institution defend our rights and regard our safety, or if they will needlessly endanger us or ignore our concerns.

There are virtually zero programs or protocols that address racial and ethnic safety concerns of military families, and certain members of Congress aim to maintain this paucity. We don't get to choose where we live. We rely on the DoD to understand these needs and support us. The DoD must either protect against these high-risk situations or respond deftly when these dangers arise, but it does neither systemically. Congress' trend toward disempowering protective DoD programs leaves all military families less safe, and it causes families like mine to leave the service to protect ourselves.

If Congress and the DoD want to fix the military's recruitment, it must face the reality that the service must be a more equitable and less racist institution. Congress can and must pass better policies through the NDAA -- policies that, at the very least, would improve data and transparency for families as they navigate safety concerns within the assignments process, for example. These changes would fortify a stronger, better, smarter military that retains and recruits the best folks across all identities.

Congress must do its job and enable the Department of Defense to meet the needs of today; our military and our country depend on it.

Khiet Ho is a licensed clinical social worker and public health professional advocating for military families at Secure Families Initiative. She is a 17-year Marine Corps spouse. 

Story Continues