Brig. Gen. Mark Quander is taking a new leadership role at the prestigious military school of West Point at a time that the spotlight has returned to the problem of extremism in the military.
Quander was appointed last month to be the next commandant of cadets, equivalent to a dean of students. Many graduates of West Point go on to leadership roles in the military.
"It's hard and it's also very challenging," Quander tells Michel Martin on All Things Considered about confronting extremism. "Because I think if it was easy, we would have fixed it a long time ago. But I do think that everyone is committed to addressing it."
About 15% of people arrested for storming the U.S. Capitol had a military background, an NPR analysis found, higher than in the normal population. A Military Times survey in 2019 found that more than a third of active-duty troops said they had witnessed examples of white nationalism and racism in the military recently.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week ordered a military-wide "stand down" for commanders to discuss the "corrosive effects" of extremist ideologies.
For Quander, who is Black, a December 1995 incident at Fort Bragg was a formative experience. Three soldiers with neo-Nazi ideologies from the elite 82nd Airborne Division were involved in the murder of two Black pedestrians in nearby Fayetteville, N.C. Prosecutors said the man who pulled the trigger did it as part of a rite of membership for a racist group.
Austin was a lieutenant colonel at the time, overseeing operations for the 82nd Airborne Division.
Quander arrived at Fort Bragg just two months later, in February 1996.
"2nd Lt. Quander shows up to his first unit," Quander recalls, "and this is the atmosphere in the 82nd Airborne Division at the time. Where we have these soldiers who no one knew expressed these views and now we're having to address it and deal with it."
He says leadership is now "all committed to making sure that this doesn't exist in our formations and that we're treating everyone with dignity and respect. And it's about caring for our fellow soldiers and making sure that these views and those folks express those views aren't serving in our military. But it's going to be hard."
Quander notes that his parents were living in Fayetteville in 1995. His family has a long military history. His extended family is the only Black family to produce four general officers in the U.S. military, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Quander's extended family is also believed to be the oldest documented African American family in the U.S., with roots going back to at least 1684. Nancy Carter Quander was formerly enslaved by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.
Quander says he thinks about the family history "now more than I thought about it probably ever in any other time before. And it's because I have a much greater appreciation of history and where we've come from and those lessons that we learned from history so that we don't repeat them."
His family is also front and center when it comes to his thinking about his job at West Point, which he will start this spring or summer.
"For me, it's personal because we're continuing the tradition" of family military service, he says. "My niece is up there right now and she'll be a senior next year, or 'firstie.' And so for me, now there's another personal connection to making sure that we can develop leaders of character to serve our nation."
Kalyani Saxena and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the audio interview.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to tell you about an important new appointment for the U.S. Army - brigadier general Mark Quander. It was just announced that he will become the next commandant of cadets, the No. 2 officer at West Point Military Academy. In that role, he'll be responsible for the development of the cadets.
The general himself has a biography we think you'll find interesting. His extended family is believed to be the only African American family to produce four general officers in the U.S. military. And the Quanders are one of the oldest documented Black families in America, some of whom can trace their ancestry to Mount Vernon. We called General Quander to learn about how he plans to shape future cadets, and I began by asking if he was aware of his family's rich history since he spent part of his childhood near Mount Vernon.
MARK QUANDER: I was aware of some of it in high school. And, you know, I think the kind of ironic piece is I graduated from Hayfield Secondary School, which is where some of the Quanders served and worked farm fields. But I didn't make that connection at the time. It wasn't until probably about five or six years later, after I graduated from West Point, that I really started to get involved with the family history. And I think it's a maturing process where maybe you don't appreciate something earlier in life, and it's still a constant education process.
MARTIN: Well, you know, in a way, that's kind of a powerful metaphor of the country writ large. I mean, there are aspects of our history that we don't always want to engage with, you know, for whatever reason. And I'm just wondering - now that you are an adult, and you are a general in service of his country, how do you put the pieces of that complicated history together? Do you ever think about that?
QUANDE: I think about it now more than I thought about it probably ever - in any other time before. And it's because I have a much greater appreciation of history and where we've come from and those lessons that we learned from history so that we don't repeat them.
And then, frankly, the history of the Quander family, of African Americans, of whatever ethnic group - we don't want to lose those stories. And as you know, a lot of it's been oral histories through the years. And we want to continue to tell those stories because otherwise, they're going to be forgotten.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, you know, part of the reason I think this - that our conversation has particular resonance right now and, frankly, your position at West Point has particular resonance right now is that, you know, part of your job will be shaping future generations of cadets. And as many people have known and as I think a lot of the rest of the country is learning, far-right extremism is a threat to national security. And we know that at least some extremist and white supremacist groups recruit from within the ranks of the military.
We know that a portion of the people who mobbed the Capitol had a military background. And that has to be concerning. And I'm just wondering if in your new role, you and the other leadership team at West Point have thought about how to address this with this next generation of military officer, future military officers. How do you begin to address something like that?
QUANDE: Well, I think it's hard. And it's also very challenging because I think if it was easy, we'd have fixed it a long time ago. But I do think that everyone is committed to addressing it. And I think you've read about the stories of now Secretary of Defense Austin and his experience at Fort Bragg in 1995. Well, I showed up to Fort Bragg in February of 1996, and my mom and dad lived in Fayetteville, N.C., at the time when the two African Americans were killed in downtown Fayetteville.
And 2nd Lieutenant Quander shows up to his first unit, and this is the atmosphere in the 82nd Airborne Division at the time where we have these soldiers who no one knew expressed these views, and now we're having to address it and deal with it.
MARTIN: Just to remind people of what happened, that these soldiers had these white supremacist views and actually killed two people as some sort of a rite of passage or something. I'm not really quite sure what the motivation was, but that's the - sort of the history we're talking about here.
QUANDE: And I don't know either. But we're all committed to making sure that this doesn't exist in our formations and that we're treating everyone with dignity and respect. And it's about caring for our fellow soldiers and making sure that these views and those folks that express those views aren't serving in our military. But it's going to be hard.
MARTIN: I do wonder if your history, though, your family history is a part - would be a part of that simply because your family shows that you have always served this country, that African Americans have been a vital part of the building of this country and of leading this country from the very beginning. And I just - I do wonder whether perhaps that's part of the problem, is that people aren't aware of that.
QUANDE: It'd be great if we could have more folks serving our country and more folks aware of the military and the service that the military provides. But we have a responsibility to tell the story. And, you know, when you look at what folks in our military are doing right now, we just mobilized, I think, a thousand soldiers to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic and serve our country. And we've been doing it every single day.
And those are the folks reaching out to the greater part of the country, showing what the - what service members are doing for our country every single day. And I think that's powerful.
MARTIN: As we said, before we let you go, you graduated from West Point in 1995, so it's a bit of a homecoming. What do you think will be your metric of success in this role?
QUANDE: The students starting out at West Point are so much more talented than I was when I started out. But they also have different challenges as well. And so my job is to make sure that the challenges are minimized, and we still develop them into leaders of character to serve our nation.
And for me, it's personal because we're continuing the tradition because my niece is up there right now, and she'll be a senior next year, or a firstie (ph). And so for me now, there's another personal connection to making sure that we can develop leaders of character to serve our nation.
MARTIN: That is Brigadier General Mark Quander. He currently serves as the commandant of the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Later this year, he will become commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
General Quander, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations. And I do hope we'll talk again.
QUANDE: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for allowing me to share my story. And I wish you and your loved ones good health as we continue to battle this pandemic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.