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Congress to Pentagon: Find and fix racially offensive forms

Defense Department had expressed reluctance to review thousands of documents

The U.S. Army Reserve commemorated its 100th anniversary by conducting a mass reenlistment of 100 soldiers on the West Front of the Capitol. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
The U.S. Army Reserve commemorated its 100th anniversary by conducting a mass reenlistment of 100 soldiers on the West Front of the Capitol. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The defense authorization bill that President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law soon would require the Defense Department to report to Congress on efforts to rid official military documents of “racially or ethnically insensitive” terms.

CQ Roll Call reported earlier this year on several previously undisclosed examples of outdated and offensive language on official Defense Department forms — and the pain these terms have caused military personnel and their families.

These people included a black woman from Florida named Joni Resilard. Her son Jahmar was a fighter pilot who was killed in a training accident in Japan in December 2018. When she got her son’s death certificate in the mail a few months later, it described his race as “negroid.”

In an interview in July, she called that “a slap in the face.”

Current issue

In addition to the 2019 incident involving Jahmar Resilard’s death certificate, CQ Roll Call divulged in July the existence of one Army document that was only revised in 2014 that had, until that point, used the terms “negroid,” “Yellow Asian” and “Red (American Indian).”

Another Army document dropped “negroid” only as late as 2014 but retained the words “yellow” and “red” to describe Asian and American Indian people, CQ Roll Call reported. It is not known how many more Defense Department forms or documents might still contain such antiquated and offensive terms.

An earlier House-passed version of the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2020 included a provision that would require the Pentagon to review all its forms to locate and replace offensive terminology.

The provision in the NDAA was written by Democrat Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, Resilard’s congressman, and was strongly supported by Maryland Democrat Anthony G. Brown, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. In the Senate, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth sponsored similar legislation.

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Pentagon recalcitrance

House aides said in July that Defense Department officials had expressed extreme reluctance to begin reviewing all their forms, which number in the thousands. Defense Department officials had nonetheless looked through more than 1,000 forms at that time and found just one objectionable one, a Pentagon spokeswoman said at that time. 

The final version of the NDAA did not include the House-passed requirement that the Pentagon review all its forms. Instead, the House-Senate conference committee directed the Pentagon to brief lawmakers within six months on the military’s efforts to find and fix documents with offensive language. And within the next year, the bill would require department leaders to give Congress a plan for how to find any other offensive forms that may still be undiscovered.

‘Unacceptable’ words

Lawmakers who pushed for legislation to address the problem said in statements that they are pleased but intend to monitor the situation.

“The fact that some documents have retained descriptions for skin color such as ‘Yellow’ for Asian Americans, ‘Red’ for Native Americans and ‘Negroid’ for African Americans is deeply offensive, and quite simply unacceptable,” Hastings told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “I expect the Secretary of Defense to address this issue judiciously and am confident that these oversights will be corrected.”

Brown, meanwhile, said the mandate to fix the offensive documents is long overdue.

“Updating military forms to reflect our nation’s progress on race is one more step toward cultivating a culture of acceptance and diversity in our armed forces,” Brown said in a statement. “I hope that the Department of Defense acts quickly to get this done.”

The Senate on Tuesday cleared the final NDAA for Trump’s signature, and the president has said he will enact the measure “immediately” upon receipt.

The Defense Department did not reply to a request for comment.

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