Defense Secretary launches effort to address extremism in ranks

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a service-wide “stand down” over the next 60 days to give military leaders the chance to address extremism in the ranks — after the Pentagon was stunned to find that veterans and active-duty service members were among those involved in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.

Under the stand down, service members would have a break in their regular activity, so “each service, each command and each unit can take the time out to have these needed discussions with the men and women of the force,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

The 60-day period would enable commanders to schedule events based on the rhythm of their operations, but it’s not fully clear what shape this stand down will take.

The events of January 6 were “a wakeup call” for the Pentagon and for Austin, the nation’s first Black defense secretary, Kirby said, adding that the unrest at the Capitol “certainly had an electric effect here at the Department of Defense in terms of the notion that anybody active duty — let alone in the veteran community — but in the active duty could be involved.” 

Austin issued the stand-down order in a meeting with all the service secretaries and service chiefs on Wednesday morning. Military leaders said the lack of a concrete definition for extremism often makes it challenging to root out among the enlisted. According to Kirby, they also mentioned there is no uniform policy on policing social media accounts of service members, since there are First Amendment issues to consider. Both of these problems will likely be discussed during the stand down to help move forward on solutions. 

This directive follows another memo from Austin last month that ordered senior leaders to report back to him on the issue of sexual assault. They’re facing a deadline Friday to  provide a summary of the prevention and accountability measures they’ve taken in the past year. 

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