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Groton submarine base hits pause to talk about extremism in the ranks

By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: March 19, 2021

GROTON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Sailors at the Naval Submarine Base took a pause from their daily work this week to talk about extremism in the ranks.

These discussions are happening at every military installation in the U.S., per a Feb. 5 directive from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who gave commanders 60 days to schedule the so-called stand-down on domestic extremism.

Austin's directive came in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. While investigations are ongoing, authorities estimate that nearly 1 in 5 of those charged in connection with the attack were either current or former service members.

"We are all duty bound to not only denounce extremist and supremacist activities but also to investigate and eliminate those kinds of activities from the ranks," said Capt. Todd Moore, the sub base's commanding officer.

Pentagon policy prohibits military personnel from "actively advocating for and participating in supremacist, extremist or criminal gang doctrine," but it does not define or outline what groups are considered extremist.

"Simply being an affiliate, a member of an extremist group, is not a crime," said Eugene Fidell, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School with expertise in military law.

Military personnel can be disciplined, however, for fundraising, rallying on behalf of extremist groups, recruiting and training members, distributing propaganda and knowingly wearing gang-related clothing or tattoos.

A push among Democrats in Congress to include extremist activity as a stand-alone crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice has so far failed to gain approval. However, there are articles in the UCMJ that can be used to punish a service member for extremist behavior.

"It's not so much a legal issue as a cultural one and a matter of leadership and modeling," said Fidell, a former judge advocate in the Coast Guard.

While many agree the military could do a better job rooting out extremism in the ranks, the problem is not unique to those in uniform.

"Treating this as a peculiarly military problem may be a miscue in that the problem is a problem in American society," Fidell said.

But military personnel are vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations "because of our training and discipline," Moore said, a point emphasized during the stand-down.

"Therefore, we have to be on guard," the captain said.

As the base's Command Master Chief Kellen Voland put it: This poses another insider threat to the military.

"We're vulnerable from the inside. We have to keep that present in our everyday minds and use that awareness to eradicate it from the force," Voland said.

Base officials are looking for groups, both inside and outside "our community," that are interested in continuing to foster these discussions, Voland said. One idea currently circulating is to address extremism during interviews when sailors report to and from the base, including garnering their ideas for fixing the problem, he said.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Aviana Nash, a junior sailor assigned to the sub base, said being new to the Navy, she felt the stand-down served as a way to clearly define "what extremist ideas and behaviors are."

"Being in the military, we are amongst different people of different walks of life who have ideas and interpretations of the world that were pre-established before the Navy," she said.

About one-third of active-duty troops surveyed in 2019 by the Military Times and Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families said they have "personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks."

While Nash said junior sailors like her did not have examples of extremist behavior exhibited by their peers, some of the more senior sailors did. Personnel, both in uniform and civilian, also shared experiences of religious extremism and persecution, Moore said.

Sailors shared these experiences in small group discussions on base, in which they also talked in detail about how to report suspected extremist activity, and the basic tenet of military service: the oath to support and defend the Constitution.

"Part of our duty is a neutral safeguard of the Constitution, which is not to say service members can't have opinions. We want service members to participate in the political process," Moore said. "We made that clear in the stand-down: what it means to be a voting member of society and participate in the political process, while not violating the rules set forth to keep the military apolitical."

Nash said she hopes there will be more opportunities for these discussions in the future, including providing a platform for more junior sailors "to express ourselves and ask the questions we want."

Moore promised this much: "This is not a one-time event," he said. "This conversation will continue."

j.bergman@theday.com

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