On Jan. 6, we witnessed an unprecedented attack on our democracy as our Capitol was assaulted by insurrectionists seeking to overthrow the results of a free and fair election.
In the weeks and months that followed, the events of that day have come into clearer focus, as has the threat this kind of extremism poses to our country and our institutions. Our military is not immune and the warning signs have been present for years.
I served in uniform. I know the character of the brave women and men who sacrifice so much to defend our country and the values we cherish. That respect and love of our military calls on us to not only recognize the threat extremism poses to our national security but take action to protect the lives of our servicemembers.
Extremist organizations intentionally target servicemembers and veterans in their recruiting, hoping to use experience gained in our military and turn it against the same American freedoms and values that they previously swore an oath to defend.
These organizations are increasingly successful in infiltrating the honored institution of the U.S. Armed Forces. While the number of Americans serving on active duty or reserve is less than 0.4 percent, the percentage of terrorist attacks planned or committed by this same group rose to almost 7 percent in 2021.
A 2020 Gang and Domestic Extremist Activity Threat Assessment from Army Criminal Investigation Command found a 66 percent increase in gang or domestic extremist activity from the previous year. According to a 2019 survey, more than one-third of all active-duty service members have witnessed instances of white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism.
And this growth in extremist activities has had grave consequences: 12 percent of those charged in the Jan. 6, 2021 attempted insurrection at the Capitol had military experience. And we’ve now seen individuals who participated in the attack successfully enlist in the United States Army.
This is a threat that demands decisive action, from the executive branch and from Congress.
President Joe Biden has addressed this threat from the beginning of his administration, calling out in his inaugural address “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has acknowledged the persistent threat of extremists in our ranks, saying that extremism “tear[s] at the fabric of who we are as an institution. I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived through it as a soldier and as a commander. It’s not new to our country and it’s not new to our military.” And the Pentagon, under Secretary Austin, has rightly made this issue a priority, first through a department-wide stand down to reinforce the oath service members take to defend the Constitution and subsequently with the establishment of the Countering Extremism Working Group.
But these words and short term actions are not enough to counter the clear and present danger posed by extremism in our military.
All too often, the Department of Defense has ignored threats to readiness and the wellbeing of servicemembers. We’ve repeatedly seen hard issues pushed down the road through “further study” or half measures.
It has been 50 years since President Richard Nixon first attempted to address racial discrimination in the military justice system, yet we still see disparities in the charges brought against Black and brown servicemembers. A 10-year fight to address sexual assault in the military has finally resulted in meaningful recommendations to protect the women and men in our armed forces from these attacks, but even these needed reforms aren’t planned to be completed by the department until after 2030.
Whether it’s sexual assault or racial injustice, the DoD repeatedly tells Congress, “we can handle it, commanders are responsible, we’re studying it, we’re ready to fight tonight.” The result has been inaction to the detriment of our servicemembers and our security.
We cannot let the DoD make the same mistakes with extremism. Without meaningful congressional action, these threats will fester and years from now we’ll be left wondering, “what more could we have done?”
Our military is unsurpassed in the world, training the men and women in uniform with the ability to lead those who follow them and equipping them with the skills necessary for combat.
Because of this, we must not let our military continue to be a training ground for extremist organizations. And we cannot allow members of those extremist organizations to simultaneously be members of the armed forces.
Such a stance must be foundational, and core to our military’s mission, extending beyond any administration or any Secretary of Defense.
It’s time for Congress to act, and for the Pentagon and White House to partner with us to guarantee an enduring defense to this serious threat to our country.
Our democracy and our security depend on it.
Anthony Brown was first elected to represent Maryland’s 4th Congressional District in 2016. He is currently serving his third term in Congress. Brown is a 30-year Army veteran and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.