A Minnesota National Guard soldier, after being nudged to remove a Facebook post that criticized the Guard for a tepid public response to last week's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is raising questions with leadership about how the organization roots out right-wing extremism within its own ranks.
The soldier is also questioning how the military conflates nonpartisan speech with apolitical speech.
Specialist Joshua Preston of Minneapolis, a 30-year-old attorney and soldier in the Minnesota National Guard's 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, was upset when the first statement to come from leadership after the Jan. 6 violence in Washington, D.C., was a vague reminder that service members "must remain apolitical." He was particularly upset that leadership referred to the insurrection only as "the timely events occurring on the national stage."
He thought the organization should have been more forceful in its stand against the attempted coup.
Preston posted a Facebook response that Guard leadership should root out right-wing extremism in its own ranks. He was later contacted by a commander raising concerns about the post, though leadership did not officially order him to take it down.
"It is not political for me, or anyone else for that matter, to call what happened yesterday an attempted coup inspired by the suggestive and conspiratorial rhetoric of the President of the United States," Preston wrote. "You know as well as I do that there are Boogaloo Bois and other anti-government types in our ranks, and so instead of sending out social media etiquette memos, perhaps you should be court-martialing and discharging those who are publicly siding with insurrectionists and traitors to the Constitution."
Preston's context: During the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's killing last spring at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the Guard mounted a forceful response in word and in deed.
"It just feels very lopsided," said Willi Lucker, a fellow Minnesota National Guardsman who shares Preston's view. "When my friends and family showed up to protest police brutality, they were met with rubber bullets, and the National Guard was quick and decisive to call it how they saw it with regards to civil unrest. A right-wing coup takes the Capitol, and the Guard basically says, 'Don't put stuff on Facebook about it.' And that's it."
Preston says he has not met fellow Guard members who are part of right-wing extremist movements like the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo Bois, but he sees a tacitly permissive feeling toward right-wing extremism among some soldiers. Leadership needs to care, Preston said, because of a history of former or current military members participating in right-wing violence: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the plot to kidnap and execute Michigan's governor, the retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve photographed on the Senate floor last week in tactical gear and with zip-tie handcuffs.
"Something about broader military culture makes us amenable … to the broader ideology of these organizations," Preston said.
After his social media post caught the attention of leadership, Preston submitted a 12-page memo beseeching them to take a stronger stance against right-wing extremism and also identify, investigate and address potential extremism in its own ranks.
"What transpired on 6 January 2021 was an insurrection and attempted coup d'état incited by and for the benefit of the President of the United States," Preston wrote in his memo. "The MNNG's silence on this fact is disconcerting. Such silence only emboldens those responsible and we must take immediate action to protect our system of governance from future acts of violence and sedition."
"As an institution, the military should be clear and consistent in its defense of basic constitutional principles," he added. This comes at the same time that the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff sent an unusual note to the entire U.S. military this week reminding them their job is to protect the Constitution and declaring Biden will be the next commander in chief.
Lt. Col. David Blomgren, Minnesota National Guard staff judge advocate, said the goal of the Guard's social media policy is to protect members' First Amendment rights while also ensuring that the Guard isn't perceived to endorse a political opinion, cause or candidate.
"The Minnesota National Guard social media policy does not prevent its members from sharing political or partisan opinions on social media," Blomgren said. "Ultimately, National Guard members should only post messages on social media that are consistent with Army and Air Force values and demonstrate dignity and respect for self and others."
Preston was raised by a single mom in Montevideo and attended the University of Minnesota, Morris. He joined the infantry because, as he puts it, "I wanted to dig holes and go sleep outside." He is trained as a gunner for Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
He ran in the 2018 DFL primary for Rep. Ilhan Omar's seat in the state Legislature, finishing fifth out of seven running.
He was activated during the protests and riots in the Twin Cities last spring.
He knows there may be consequences for speaking out — from the military or from extremists — but he believes last week's violence ought to be a catalyst for the military to look inward.
"The FBI warning that our own state Capitol is under threat terrifies me," he said. "We should use this as basis for understanding of what does extremism look like in our own ranks."