Last Sunday, four-star Gen. Robert Abrams, who commands all US forces in South Korea, held a town hall with black service members on the subject of race that was then broadcast on Facebook to thousands.
Abrams made it a point to have everyone attending the event wear civilian clothes – an important symbol to lessen signs of military rank. Abrams told the audience “we’re going to develop an action plan with real meat on the bones to get after this. We are not going to put up with this one second longer this time.”
Abrams, who is white, spoke in deeply personal terms. “From my time of service, I’ve tried real hard to be part of the solution, and it was really difficult for me to come to grasp this week that I have fallen way short in helping eliminate racism and bigotry in our own ranks.”
Abrams’ town hall is just one example of how America’s top military leaders are attempting to move ahead on their own to address the issue of racism in the ranks without waiting for President Donald Trump to decide if he wants to speak to the country following nationwide protests prompted by death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
There is no indication top brass are coordinating their efforts, but the message is unmistakable. Service members at all levels are speaking out and commanders are listening. The military – which Trump often uses to bolster himself as a commander in chief – is taking a renewed stand against racial injustice and moving on from the President on this key issue.
They are well aware they risk incurring the anger of the President but are determined to speak up and push for improvements in a military that strives to be diverse.
There’s a conversation happening across all ranks and at installations around the globe via social media, speeches, videos, and unexpected moments.
One general told CNN that a few days ago a young black service member on his staff told him, “I don’t feel like anybody ever really sees me,” when moving around the Pentagon’s corridors.
The general’s reaction? “We have to start listening to what people are saying,” he told CNN, describing the conversation.
Painful revelations are being shared at all ranks in a military that does not often see its members publicly express emotion.
The Army’s most senior enlisted soldier, Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston, posted a video on Twitter about the difficulties he has faced as a biracial American. Grinston spoke candidly about an occasion when he was told he couldn’t mark himself as black on a form and there was no option to describe his mixed-race identity.
Air Force Gen. Charles Brown posted a video about his experience as a four-star general and a black man, in which he said he was “full with emotion” for “the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd.”
He added, “I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty.”
“I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers and then being questioned by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?’” he said.
The Air Force’s inspector general is now investigating the service’s history on military discipline and career opportunities for black service members.
An extraordinary apology from the country’s top general
Military leaders have also been navigating the challenges presented by a President who has at times attempted to drag the services into party politics.
On Thursday, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an extraordinary apology for his presence in Lafayette Square during the President’s walk to St. John’s church for a photo-op after peaceful protests were forcefully dispersed.
Milley noted that his presence “sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
Trump is already angry at Defense Secretary Mark Esper for publicly opposing the use of active duty troops on the streets of Washington during the protests – something Milley and Esper had to talk the President out of doing, several sources have told CNN.
Pentagon officials initially tried to suggest Esper had not broken from the President, but it become so serious that Esper became aware last week that the President might have fired him.
Trump has already shut down one Pentagon effort to address the country’s painful racial divide.
On Wednesday, the President tweeted that he would “not even consider” renaming Army bases currently bearing the names of Confederate generals. It was by any measure a direct rebuke of Pentagon leadership.
Esper and Milley had let it be known they endorsed an Army plan presented by its top political appointee, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, to begin a bipartisan national conversation about removing Confederate generals’ names from ten US Army installations. The Army on Wednesday had begun discussing names of individuals it might ask to serve on a blue-ribbon panel examining the issue.
But the President moved quickly to shut down a dialog initiated by his most senior military leaders, stating in a series of tweets, “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” adding, “Respect our Military!” He did not address the fact that the idea came from his own senior military and defense team.
It’s also not clear if Trump will now try to stop both Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday and Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger’s efforts to ban Confederate symbols from their military installations. Both military leaders —who are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff– have made the point that symbols of division cannot be tolerated in a military that depends on unity among troops to fight and win battles.
The Air Force and Army are also expected to issue similar orders and Esper may consider a similar ban at civilian facilities, even though they are aware the President could overturn their decisions, defense officials say.
In recent days, each of the heads of the military services, as well as Milley and Esper, have put out public messages addressing racism in the military. It was the same strategy they used after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to remind troops that racism is not tolerated and reach a wider audience across the country.
In contrast, the President appeared to condone the white supremacists at that rally by praising the “very fine people on both sides.”
But the scale of the challenge facing the military should not be underestimated. Black officers are still underrepresented at the highest ranks making up 19% of enlisted service members but only 9% of officers. And when he takes the helm of the Air Force, Brown will be the first black chief of staff of any military branch. An historic first 72 years after President Harry Truman’s July 26, 1948, executive order that desegregated the US military.