WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. Navy commanders met with sailors on ships on the West Coast Monday and Tuesday, after two recent racist incidents triggered one of the first military stand-downs to address extremism in the ranks.
The meetings came after a noose was found on one ship, and hate speech was found written on a wall on another ship. But the discussions with sailors and admonishments by leadership were spurred by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent orders for all military commanders to meet with troops in the next 60 days to talk about extremism and racism.
“We cannot be under any illusions that extremist behaviors do not exist in our Navy,” Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in a message to the force. “We must better understand the scope of the problem, get after this issue, and eliminate conduct that is driven by extremist beliefs. No doubt, this is a leadership issue. We will own this.”
Noting the two incidents where “symbols of hate and violence” were found on ships, he warned that racism, disrespect and injustice can prevent the Navy from reaching its potential as an American fighting force.
Navy officials said that in the first incident, a noose was found on a Black sailor’s bunk in late January on the USS Lake Champlain, a Navy cruiser. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service looked into the matter, and a sailor eventually confessed and was taken off the ship. The ship was at the pier in San Diego when the incident happened, but it is now at sea.
In the second incident, hate speech was written on a bathroom wall on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier. It was discovered over the weekend and it is still under investigation. Officials declined to say what words were written.
Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, abruptly flew from his headquarters in Hawaii to San Diego this week to address the issue. He spoke with sailors on the two ships as well as others in the fleet, and held a number of meetings with commanders Monday and Tuesday.
In a video addressing a room full of crew members of the Carl Vinson, Aquilino said: “Extremism in our Navy is unacceptable. We will not tolerate it. OK? It’s that simple.”
He told the sailors that when missiles start flying and “we start dropping bombs on people, nobody’s going to care who their shipmate is and what color, race, gender, creed that they are.”
In a statement, he added, “I have policies in the Pacific Fleet that we do not care what race you are, what creed you are, what god you pray to, what sexual orientation you are, or what gender you are.” And he told them that sailors deserve a safe place to work.
Austin, the Pentagon’s first Black defense chief, put out orders last week to his military leaders, saying they have to spend time talking to their troops about extremism in the ranks. Over the weekend, he specified that each commander must set aside a one-day stand-down within the next 60 days to address the problem.
Austin’s chief spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters last week that while extremism has been a problem in the military in the past, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead, was a “wake-up call” for military leaders. He said Austin wants to get a better handle on the breadth of the problem.
President Joe Biden declared domestic extremism an urgent national security threat in the wake of the riot. The crowd that breached the building as lawmakers were preparing to certify his election was overwhelmingly white and included members of far-right groups.