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A Navy SEAL's fight against LGBTQ+ policies tests the Pentagon's new extremism rules

Navy SEAL Bryce Henson, right, speaks into a bullhorn directed into the face of a pro-LGBTQ+ demonstrator at a rally in Orange, California, Sept. 7, 2023. A Navy investigation found Henson engaged in threatening behavior, but didn’t violate the Pentagon’s extremism rules.
Courtesy of Kelly Stuart
Navy SEAL Bryce Henson, right, speaks into a bullhorn directed into the face of a pro-LGBTQ+ demonstrator at a rally in Orange, California, Sept. 7, 2023. A Navy investigation found Henson engaged in threatening behavior, but didn’t violate the Pentagon’s extremism rules.

In 2021, the Pentagon enacted a policy designed to keep extremists out of the military. But a recent San Diego case demonstrates the challenges of distinguishing extremist activity from protected political speech.

The Naval Special Warfare Center launched an investigation into Chief Special Warfare Operator Bryce Henson in November. The Navy SEAL spent more than a year speaking at rallies, city council meetings, and school board meetings — first against Critical Race Theory then against LGBTQ+ inclusive policies.

Photos and videos from several events show Henson in the company of alleged members of the Proud Boys, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group. Henson also was photographed alongside a man with a large Nazi eagle tattoo on his head and swastika tattoo on his arm during two separate rallies in January 2023.

He was featured in an October Los Angeles Times investigation into the coordinated conservative actions at Southern California school boards.

The Navy's investigation into Henson was finished in mid-January, according to a Navy official with knowledge of the investigation. It concluded Henson didn't violate the Pentagon rules against participation in extremist activity.

A screenshot of a direct message sent to TheChartyB Instagram account from "Ben Richards," an alias of Bryce Henson. The message said "share with your friends" and includes a video of Henson in his Navy uniform shooting weapons.
Courtesy of TheChartyB
A screenshot of a direct message sent to TheChartyB Instagram account from "Ben Richards," an alias of Bryce Henson. The message said "share with your friends" and includes a video of Henson in his Navy uniform shooting weapons.

However, it did find the SEAL engaged in threatening behavior, according to the official, who is not authorized to comment publicly on the case.

It's not clear what threats the Navy's investigation reviewed, and the official did not say. But some members of the LGBTQ+ community in Temecula, California say Henson harassed and threatened them in 2023, after voters elected a conservative-majority local school board.

The board voted to ban critical race theory and rejected a social studies curriculum that covered the gay-rights movement. It also required teachers to tell parents when their child asks to use a different name, pronoun, or identifies as transgender at school.

Judy Bailey Savage owns the Savage Ranch, which describes itself as a refuge for Temecula's queer community. Savage says even though she didn’t attend school board meetings, Henson began leaving rude comments on her Instagram posts and once called her late at night.

"I asked him, 'Why are you stalking me, why are you calling me?'" Savage said. "And he goes, 'Well, I've already surveilled your property.'"

In a separate incident, Henson took to Instagram on January 25 - after the Navy investigation was complete - to share a video of himself in his Navy uniform shooting guns.

"Since certain people leaked my work history to the press," Henson wrote in the video's caption, "I guess I'll share my skill sets with my friends in hopes to spread awareness of exercising our 2nd Amendment rights safely and legally."

Among the people who received the video is an anonymous Instagram user who runs an account called "TheChartyB," which documents the connections among conservative activists and groups involved in the LGBTQ+ school board debates. TheChartyB Instagram account labels Henson as an "agitator."

Just past midnight January 26, Henson sent his shooting video to TheChartyB in an Instagram direct message and wrote, "share with your friends."

“It felt very threatening," said the person who runs TheChartyB, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears for her safety. “It’s scary having somebody send you threatening messages when they’ve been trained by the U.S. military to be a killing machine."

In an emailed statement, Henson didn’t comment on the allegations of sending threats. Instead, he wrote that he’s a father who’s been smeared by people.

Judy Bailey Savage owns the <a  href="https://savageranch.us/">Savage Ranch</a>, which describes itself as a refuge for Temecula's queer community. Savage said Henson left rude comments on her Instagram posts, made harassing phone calls, and claimed to have surveilled her property.
Andrew Dyer
/
American Homefront
Judy Bailey Savage owns the Savage Ranch, which describes itself as a refuge for Temecula's queer community. Savage said Henson left rude comments on her Instagram posts, made harassing phone calls, and claimed to have surveilled her property.

A call for a clearer definition of extremism

Bishop Garrison, a senior fellow with the National Security Institute at George Mason Law School, helped craft new Pentagon rules on extremism among service members.

While he did not comment on Henson's case specifically, he said the Pentagon’s policy on extremist behavior is written broadly so that any allegations need to be considered in context.

Garrison said further federal action is needed to better define extremist behavior.

"What we need is for ... Congress to stand up and make some very specific laws and rules around what our expectations of this type of behavior, really, truly should be,” he said.

Garrison noted that there's real danger when members of the military become radicalized.

"It is a very small, minute group of actors that have engaged this type of activity, but our major concerns is that this activity has a direct outsized impact," Garrison said. "Not only can you can you deteriorate unit cohesion, not only can you disrupt the good order and discipline of units — people get hurt."

The Navy classifies Henson’s investigation as administrative, and a Naval Special Warfare spokesperson said he won’t comment on any administrative actions.

"When there are allegations of misconduct, we investigate and take appropriate action based on the facts," said Commander William Tisdale. "We expect our sailors who choose to engage in public discourse to do so peacefully and in a lawful manner. As a matter of policy, we will not release specific details about administrative matters regarding our sailors."

The Pentagon policy says troops found to have participated in extremist activity are expelled from the military. However, because Henson was found only to have engaged in threatening behavior, the range of potential punishments is broader. While it's still possible that the Navy could expel him from the SEALs or the armed services entirely, he also could receive minor punishment.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Copyright 2024 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Andrew Dyer
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