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How The Military's Attempt To Tackle Extremism In Its Ranks Is Progressing

NOEL KING, HOST:

For the U.S. military, setting aside a few hours for a group discussion is complicated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How we doing today?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good, good.

KING: But recently, around 30 people - Marines and some civilians - filed into an auditorium to talk about extremism in the ranks. These kinds of sessions are happening across the entire military. When Lloyd Austin became secretary of defense, he called for these stand-downs. They were prompted by the presence of military veterans during the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Now the deadline is approaching for all branches of the military to show they've carried out Austin's order.

Joining me now are Steve Walsh, who covers the military and veterans from member station KPBS, and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you both for being here, guys.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You're welcome.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks.

KING: Tom, I want to start with you. You went to one of these sessions.

BOWMAN: Right. I did. It was at Henderson Hall, and that's a Marine support center near the Pentagon. Noel, there were about three dozen people in an auditorium. It was a mix of military and civilian, men and women, Black and white, some on the young side, others older. And they were given examples of military investigations over the past few years concerning active service members linked to neo-Nazi or anti-government activities. Some of them stockpiled explosives or weapons or organized online.

Now, this is interesting. In a show of hands, nearly all thought there were problems with both extremism and racism. In society, one female Marine officer said, not everyone in the general public shares our values. But just one-third of hands went up on the question about a problem of racism and extremism in the Marine Corps. Now, during this stand-down, there was a discussion. The group was warned by a Marine officer about extremist groups trying to recruit military members and to be careful about what he called garbage that's on the Internet. The officer told him to keep an eye on anything troubling they might see among their comrades and to report it, but don't be paranoid. Don't spy on one another.

And one African American civilian here who was a former Marine said it's important to have a more diverse military to help deal with some of these issues. He said, quote, "It can't be just a good old boys' network anymore." And that's something, Noel, all the services are dealing with - how to make the officer corps more diverse.

KING: OK, so a lot of really interesting perspectives coming out of this. Steve, who have you been talking to, and what have you found?

WALSH: So the secretary of defense outlined certain basics. You know, the troops had to review their oaths to support and defend the Constitution. Then each service kind of put out their own guidance for how to do these. Now, I talked to a Marine unit. The Marines seem to have settled on pushing this down to the small-unit commanders. I talked with First Lieutenant Madeline Hoffman, who is in charge of military infantry logistics unit, just before she was about to run her stand-down at Twentynine Palms here in California. She remembers watching the storming of the Capitol on TV.

MADELINE HOFFMAN: Yeah, that was tough as a service member to see. But yeah, just personal opinions aside, I just - I take that oath very seriously, and I want to make sure that our Marines understand that, like, that type of activity, like, it is directly in contrast to that oath.

WALSH: So the Marines I talked to felt the military's reputation as being apolitical has been kind of under siege for a while. After the storming of the Capitol, some 15% of those charged had some sort of military affiliation. Now, one of the more confusing things that came up during the stand-down is the idea that you can be a member of one of these extremist groups but not an active member. For Marines, that seemed like kind of a pretty tough idea to define.

KING: These stand-downs have to be done by early April. That's now. Is it likely?

BOWMAN: Well, as far as we know, all the services have wrapped up their extremism stand-downs. And I understand the defense secretary expects to talk with the Joint Chiefs this week and get their assessment of how things went and what they've learned.

WALSH: Yeah, I mean, that's interesting. The Marines I talked to say that they really hadn't talked about extremism before now. They felt like leadership was kind of putting them on notice, telling them what they can and cannot do online, especially. I talked with Marine Corporal David Dorsey who says that this was informative. The stand-down he was in lasted more than an hour and a half, which was longer than they thought, because of all the questions. But the corporal says that he didn't think there would be any quick fix here.

DAVID DORSEY: I feel like it's not going to be a quick turnaround. Usually, nothing ever is when you're trying to change a wide range of people, just like if we were to go into, like, a hazing matter or bullying in the civilian world, that's something that's still around. Do we work on trying to fix it? Yes. But it's a slow-going thing. It's not something that's going to change immediately. And you have to influence people to want to be better.

KING: That's an interesting comparison he makes. So the stand-downs, the discussion groups, they've all happened. What comes next, Steve?

WALSH: So that's a good question. There have been hints that suggest the Pentagon is following up, but nothing has really come out so far. I talked with Heidi Beirich, who is a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She monitors extremist groups, including the military's response. You know, she praised the stand-downs. She says that if the military doesn't follow up with concrete action, though, they could end up sending the exact opposite message to troops in the field.

HEIDI BEIRICH: There is a lot that needs to be done to fix this problem in the military. So, you know, I think of the stand-down as being a good wake-up call to everyone, and hopefully there'll be serious conversations in every branch and every level about these issues. But, I mean, that can only be perceived as one tiny piece of - it really is. It's an overhaul and a massive change in the way the military's managed.

KING: Tom, what are your takeaways, having attended one of these events and, of course, covering this more broadly?

BOWMAN: What you keep hearing is, there's a lot of gray area here - what's appropriate, what's not appropriate and what is extremist behavior. And the leadership will have to work all that out. Now, for example, a lot of Republican members of Congress continue to believe the election was stolen. Of course, there is no evidence of that. And there were a lot of banners and T-shirts at the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol saying, stop the steal. But here's the thing, Noel, with the military - if a soldier or Marine wears that shirt saying, stop the steal, he could be in legal trouble because you could argue he's questioning the legitimacy of his commander in chief, and that could violate military law. So I asked the Marine officer leading the discussion about that. Here's what he had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED COLONEL: If I saw a Marine wearing a T-shirt like that, I would certainly have a conversation with him about it. And the context would be very - it would be even more important, right? So at baseline, I don't think it's appropriate. But where they're wearing it could even make it less appropriate.

BOWMAN: So you can see there are a lot of questions here. Now, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby says his boss, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, wants this to be a continual focus for the military, saying it's a leadership issue and something they should be thinking about and acting on every single day. So this stand-down is obviously a first step for the U.S. military on a very, very long road.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. We were also joined by Steve Walsh, who covers veterans and the military for KPBS. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

WALSH: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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