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24 January 2023

For about a year now, I decided to stop watching the news in order to limit some of the chaos I was exposed to. I do however get occasional news updates on my phone and while I usually swipe it away immediately, this one I decided to open and read. "Man who Propped Feet on Pelosi Desk Found Guilty," it said. I read on, watched the video link inside, and reflected.

I remember exactly where I was when the insurrection on the U.S. Capital took place. I watched everything live on the news while at work and my coworkers and I were all in some form of a state of shock, hurt, or disappointment. Some coworkers who commuted down to the capital that day were unable to retrieve their vehicles from parking garages as they were told by law enforcement to, "come back in a week" as the infrastructure was on a lockdown.

I remember how my branch leadership pulled each of us aside and spoke to us one by one to check in and see how we were doing. We carried on work wise, nothing was dropped, but the action of that day, the divisiveness of that time, definitely wore on each of us and impacted our team in different ways; much of which was invisible.

Not too long afterwards, Secretary Austin mandated that the DoD partake in an "Extremism" discussion which was geared to address what our rights are as service members within the DoD and to serve as a reminder of the Oath(s) that we took. I participated in two of the extremism training day events: One from a separate government organization I supported while the other by the Air Force, led by my Squadron. Between the two, I learned a significant amount of valuable information but there is one thing I learned that stood out to me above all else.

During the Air Force training, one of the guest speakers was a JAG officer (they are lawyers). He highlighted several rights service members had and while doing so he highlighted how it is not against the law to be a member of a hate group and that we military members CAN have mere-membership into an organization but cannot actively participate (he provided examples of what behaviors constitute each category). I then asked, "I understand that membership into a hate group is permissible for non-government citizens, but as a military member, am I authorized to join the "proud boys" hate group, or the KKK?" The JAG explained that yes, it is the service members right to do, when they are off duty. It is protected under Freedom of Speech within the Constitution.

After that discussion I did some digging into the Air Force regulations and consulted some other JAG officers. I had a very difficult time fathoming how as military members, we seem to give up so many other liberties, but this one seemed to remain intact. After reviewing AFI 36-2706 Equal Opportunity Program Military and Civilian, AFI 36-2406 Officer and Enlisted Performance Evaluations, AFI 51-903 Dissident and Protest Activities, and AFI 51-508 Political Activities, Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly of Air Force Personnel, I learned that yes, mere-membership to hate groups is authorized while active participation is not. Once membership into these organizations is known and it causes a "disruption of cohesion" to a unit, Commanders can choose to document it into a letter of counseling or reprimand and place it into a performance report. This is the Air Force’s attempt to track the behavior.

I also discovered that the Air Force Instructions (AFI) advises Commanders to review the "FBI Criminal Gangs List" when making hiring decisions, as this contains a list of gangs where membership was NOT authorized and is strictly prohibited. The language between "Criminal gangs" vs "hate groups" was interesting, but what was even more interesting was the demographic of people that fell within each group. The criminal gangs list appeared to have a more heavily skewed list of Black, Mexican and Asian gangs than Aryan gangs. When I continued to vocalize my concerns with my network of Officers I was informed that the DAF Office of Diversity and Inclusion is aware of this and it is under review.

Shortly after discovering those findings, I couldn’t help but fully acknowledge so many of the hard truths I was being confronted with. The disparities in promotion and non-judicial punishment of people of color but more specifically, African Americans in the Air Force. The rampant negligence in leadership and accountability at Ft Hood. The repeated murders of unarmed Black people across the country. I looked at the demographic of people from the 6 January 2021 U.S. Capital insurrection. I remembered the words that were said, the images of confederate flags. The nooses. As more details were revealed I learned that some of the insurrectionists were prior military members, police officers and in the case of the man in this article, fire-fighters. All of these are professions identified to have the TRUST of the public. I've grown up trusting, believing, and serving this community. I was BORN on a military base. I got my first job at a military Commissary (grocery store). My closest friends are those that I've met while wearing this USAF uniform. I began to wonder, "Do I REALLY know the community that I am serving with? Can I truly trust the people and organization I once so confidently called MY TEAM?

Fast forward to the present. My therapist shared with me how she knows she inspires just by showing up. She knows that as a Black woman officer, there are Airmen that see her and feel a comfort in knowing that she is there. That they are not alone and that for many, she brings a reason for trust. After my year long battle with mental health and confronting so many traumatic experiences this year, I know this is true. But what do you do when this type of representation is NOT available?

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by past experiences that lead me to fear, distrust or have distorted thoughts I acknowledge the truth that’s hurting me then counter it with truth that allows me to see the bigger picture. I remember the people who may share the same phenotype, gender, or belief system that caused me the harm and I run a list of people in that same phenotype, gender, or belief system that helped me, in order to recover. This is how I bring myself out of those spiral moments.

America in all areas from its public and private institutions to the hearts and minds of every human being have a very long way to go to even begin to restore and repair what has been pulverized for so many. At least, that’s my opinion. But I do have hope that the more truth we expose to each other (our vulnerabilities), the more we seek truth with collaborative discussion, and the more we are willing to prioritize helping each other heal, I do believe we can make our own reparation and be the America that so many of us read about in our founding documents and the America that so many (including myself) dream about.


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