After a career in the Army, little surprises Col. Christopher Nyland, garrison commander at Fort George G. Meade.
He knows that there are members of the Army and the military as a whole that express extremist behaviors. That was only reinforced by the training he underwent and led regarding extremism in the military.
“I would challenge you to find any group of 3 million people that didn’t have some members in their ranks that didn’t have some of those beliefs… So that was about overcoming the ‘we don’t have a problem,’” Nyland said.
“And I think no one in the room was surprised, at least in the group that I led or the group that I participated in, that that kind of behavior was unacceptable.”
In February, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin authorized every Department of Defense unit to take a one-day stand down in order to train on extremism. The stand-down was in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. An NPR report found that at least 20% of those charged had or were currently serving in the military.
All units needed to complete the stand down by April 6, and those at Fort Meade were no different.
When the stand-down order first came out, Nyland and other leaders in the Military District of Washington, under which Fort Meade falls, came together to talk about what behaviors they had seen and the messages they wanted to get across to the force.
Maj. Gen. Omar Jones, commanding general of the Joint Force Headquarters - National Capital Region and Military District of Washington, led three sessions with his subordinate commanders, including Nyland.
The first two focused on approach, while the third prioritized meeting the objectives of the training. There were three objectives: re-emphasizing the oath of office each service member takes, understanding what behaviors were and were not permissible, and learning to identify signs of extremist behavior.
This was not the first time Nyland talked about extremism in the military, he said. The Army has started to shift to a people-first mentality, with the idea that the Army cannot complete its mission if it does not take care of its people.
The force had taken steps to address corrosive behaviors, Nyland said, including looking at sexual assault, diversity and inclusion and suicide. Extremism fell under corrosive behaviors.
But even with previous training, Nyland said he did not realize the role of counterintelligence in reporting extremist behaviors among military members until the stand down.
How to identify and report extremist behavior was one of the biggest takeaways from the training, especially how to do it in a way that did not feel like a soldier turned on a fellow soldier.
The training also allowed Nyland’s units to take a deeper look at the oath. It’s something that the service members say when they join and reaffirm when they get promoted into leadership roles. But this training allowed them to really examine it.
“And when you really start taking it apart, the fact that it wasn’t just about defending the constitution through force of ours, but it was also supporting it in all its different ways, I think was really powerful,” Nyland said.
The training included documents that the leaders had to use, but it was done in a way that was meant to drive discussion, said Capt. Kyle Thomas, with the 1st Medical Recruiting Company.
“Whether you’re the lowest ranking soldier or the leader of that unit, it was designed for everybody to be able to have their voice heard,” Thomas said.
One of the harder areas to identify extremism is on social media, said Capt. Shane Ivy, who led training for his unit, the 21 Military Police Detachment.
People are allowed to have their beliefs, with the understanding that some beliefs can break down a unit, Ivy said. When it comes to social media, it can be difficult to determine what constitutes action on those beliefs or extremist actions.
Take liking a page on Facebook, Ivy said. It is not necessarily an extremist action. But now that a person liked that page, they’ll start seeing more and more posts of a certain viewpoint.
“So I would say that social media is just a tough thing to address,” Ivy said. “I think it is evolving every single day. It’s different blogs, it’s different. So I don’t know that the Army can really keep up.”
The Army is a fluid organization in that people are constantly receiving new assignments or joining. Those transferring to Fort Meade will come with the training already complete.
While Nyland said he will trust the training from the other units, there is also a sponsor program already established. The ideals from the training could be included within the discussions a sponsor has with a newly transferred soldier.
When it comes to recruiting, parts of the training could be injected into onboarding processes, Thomas said.
Going through the training can also make the Army a more attractive workplace for those considering enlisting.