SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. –
In February 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III directed all units across the Department of Defense to hold stand-down days over a 60-day window to address extremism in the ranks. The stand-down days involved deep conversations and specifically served as a focused reminder of the Oath of Office all service members must take. A mental health perspective could help identify why some members get involved in Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) or conduct extremist acts. Additionally, addressing risk factors may help prevent service members from venturing down this path.
The over-all intent of the extremism stand-down days is captured in the below quote:
Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón "CZ" Colón-López "What is most important to me right now is the prevention of that behavior. Because even if they exist right now, if they know that the department and the institution is looking for that behavior, and wanting to crush it, then they will think twice about performing those acts. This is all about prevention. We don't want people to commit criminal activities... The key point here is that we need to make sure that we let our personnel right now, past and present, know that we do not tolerate that behavior, and that we're going to educate our people to know right from wrong."
How these discussions and stand-down days were conducted was pivotal in whether or not members were receptive to the intent. Just as the military must remain unbiased and neutral from a political standpoint, the facilitators of these discussions needed to remain neutral and unbiased. A foundation built on bias does not lead to meaningful, real and open conversations. Key components of mental health are reading non-verbals, establishing rapport and, most importantly, showing empathy. Every DoD-wide discussion held on such sensitive topics must be built on these skills to reach the highest potential of prevention, insight and understanding.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) conducted a comprehensive study on street gangs and violent extremist organizations. Their results showed individuals who join VEOs come from diverse backgrounds and regions. There is no prototypical profile. While younger males generally constitute the majority, females are gradually playing increasingly visible roles. “Their socio-economic status and education levels generally reflect the broader population in which they live and thus vary significantly. Psychologically, individuals who willingly join extremist groups do all appear to be on a personal journey to seek identity, status, revenge or excitement. This desire for something more makes them susceptible to messages about a better world divided between adherents and non-adherents, which in turn can justify violence in the pursuit of an absolutist worldview.”
Individual grievances which people experience can easily be exploited by VEO. Often times VEOs will use people’s struggles and exploit or relate to situations such as alienation, disillusionment with nonviolent methods of protest to produce change, personal victimization or empathy with victims, identity-seeking behaviors, and social ties with those experiencing similar grievances.” Often times these vulnerabilities can be identified through general conversation or behavior observation. If you notice a team member alienating themselves, show empathy and have a conversation with the individual to convey they are a valued member of the team.
Further, USAID research showed that typically a VEO will radicalize individuals by paralleling their sense of identity and belonging with one of the VEOs extremist belief systems or values and connecting them with an established VEO member whose identity and ideals are similar. Through these interactions, beliefs become more ingrained and an individual’s grievances are exploited through social networking. Just as VEO members are actively seeking and looking for individuals who are susceptible to radicalization, military members must do the same to deter members from joining VEOs.
Social Cohesion: Units and teams coming together and ensuring time is prioritized for resiliency and camaraderie is a key variable in extremism prevention. Unit members having the opportunity to connect with their coworkers and feeling they are a valued member of the team can help prevent some social risk factors. “Rebuilding social cohesion is especially important in societies affected by violence. Doing so requires reducing disparities and exclusion while simultaneously strengthening social capital and relationships. From a violence prevention standpoint, social networks among diverse groups increase acceptance and tolerance, dampening the impact of divisive events and making it more difficult for groups to spread an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
Parental Engagement: Knowing a member’s background can aid in identifying what level of family engagement a member had and if there were any ingrained extremist ideals or values with which they were reared. If someone was reared on extremist ideals by his or her family, then that member will be more susceptible to joining VEOs. Ideally these members could be identified during screening processes before joining the military; however, some individuals with these ingrained values join the military. General conversations and discussion about these topics could potentially open the eyes of individuals reared on extremist ideals. A Department of Justice report echoed this sentiment: “families are a consistent influence on children’s development over time.” A 2015 RAND study found while peer groups may be part of the radicalization process, “family influence appears more likely to dampen a propensity toward violence.”
Additionally, if someone grew up without a solid parent figure they may be seeking out someone amongst their peers or chain of command to fill that “mentor role.” When there is a parental role model or mentor void, a risk may exist for extremist organizations or ideologies to fill that void and provide a sense of belonging. Keep this in mind: it is imperative supervisors and other leaders in the chain of command fulfill their roles as supervisors, mentors and leaders to ensure their members feel engaged, empowered and valued.
It is not enough to just outline the problem and have stand-down days. In order to maximize extremism prevention we have to identify potential root causes of what leads individuals to participate in extremist activities and have extremist view-points. Connection and inclusion are two of the most important elements in combating extremism. A single conversation where you show empathy, genuinely listen and care for what someone has to say can potentially prevent VEO involvement. There are often triggers for individuals’ actions and behaviors such as past history, upbringing, past and current trauma and other life-stressors. Having an understanding of your member’s sociological background, such as knowing their culture, background and values, ensure you can truly know your people and care for them. Although there can be many psychological risk factors, true connection and empathy can help identify and address at risk-behaviors and help prevent individuals from joining VEOs.
 Dininio, P., & Werbel, J. (2016). Street gangs and violent extremist organizations: Learning
across fields. United States Agency for International Development. https://pdf.usaid.gov/ pdf_docs/PA00MPHK.pdf