Col. Karin Watson, garrison commander at Fort Lee, Va., explains the intent of the DOD-wide extremism stand-down during the first of several sessions conducted at the Army training post this week. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered all military departments to complete the stand-down by April 1. (U.S. Army Photo by Patrick Buffett)
Col. Karin Watson, garrison commander at Fort Lee, Va., explains the intent of the DOD-wide extremism stand-down during the first of several sessions conducted at the Army training post this week. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered all military departments to complete the stand-down by April 1. (U.S. Army Photo by Patrick Buffett) (Photo Credit: Patrick Buffett) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – Army Soldiers and government civilians at Fort Lee are taking part in a DOD-wide extremism stand-down this week.

The high-priority awareness and education campaign was set into motion by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Feb. 5 – just two weeks after he was sworn into his position. In a message to military leaders, he emphasized the stand-down is only the beginning of what he believes “must be a concerted effort” to better educate the force about the scope of the problem and to “develop sustainable ways to eliminate the corrosive effects that extremist ideology and conduct have on the workforce.”

All military departments were subsequently ordered to complete the stand-down by April 1.

The opening session at Fort Lee’s Memorial Chapel Tuesday morning had about 200 attendees, most of them joining in via teleconference. Col. Karin Watson, garrison commander, led the discussion that covers four main topics – the oath of military and government civilian service, impermissible behaviors, warning signs of extremism and reporting procedures.

“Up front, I’m going to tell you this is a wakeup call that’s very much needed,” Watson observed. “I (just) listened to a sit-down the Secretary of the Army had with other senior leaders, and something he said really stayed with me, which I’m paraphrasing here.

“We are, right now, a very-divided country, but our Army has done more and sacrificed more for the American way of life than any other institution. (This issue) is not about your political beliefs. It’s not about your religious beliefs or your social beliefs. It’s about specific behaviors that undermine cohesion and readiness … actions that bring disrespect and indiscipline to our ranks. That is why we’re doing this.”

Watson, who hails from Guam, shared her views as a naturalized citizen who cherishes the opportunity to serve as an Army officer. “This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said, “so that (officer oath) means a whole lot to me every time I recite it. It may not be the same for you, and that’s OK because we all come from different backgrounds, but to me it represents the beauty of America.”

Calling on the audience to share their views, Watson yielded the floor to Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. James House, who said the Oath of Enlistment is the centerpiece of cohesiveness. “We come in, take this oath of office, and strive to abide by those promises. … It is one of the things that has kept our Army strong to this day.”

Yessica Gonzalez-Hernandez, the installation’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program coordinator, offered similar reflections on the Civilian Corps Creed. “It helps us understand that we really are connected to the Army, just as much as service members, and how important every single one of us is to the mission,” she said.

The additional testimony lent credence to a briefing slide listing the commonalities of Army oaths of service. Everybody in the room had sworn to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. They had vowed to uphold a higher professional standard and set the example. They freely accepted the responsibility to maintain good order and discipline essential for an unbeatable Army.

“We are part of a values-based organization that relies on teamwork,” Watson summarized. “We cannot do this alone. I know I need my team to back me up, and the Army as a whole needs all of you.”

Watson then called on the team to not only stamp out extremism and racism, but also sexual harassment/assaults and suicide – the “three corrosives” of military service. Pointing out a small image of the Star Wars character Yoda on a briefing slide, she referenced one of his more memorable lines: “‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.’ All three of the corrosives are evidence of that,” she said.

The remaining nuts and bolts of the session focused on definitions of extremism; indicators of extremist actions; prohibited activities, which carry over to conveying threats and promoting hatred and bigotry online; and the military and civilian regulations that outline potential punitive charges.

When the training concluded, Watson offered final thoughts about the session and its central topic. She noted that while extremism has long existed in this country, recent events demonstrated how dangerous the divisions in our society have become. Any possibility of that hatred and bigotry being promoted by an Army team-member is, in her words, “unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

“The bottom-line message today is that we are responsible for combating the corrosiveness that comes from extremism and other negative types of behavior,” Watson said. “I hope (the stand-down attendees) won’t see this as a check-the-block type of event. It was intended as an exchange of ideas and thoughts that lead to additional discussion. Awareness and communication is always the step forward that’s needed to resolve these issues.”