The Veterans of Foreign War is responding to a New York Times column linking military service to right-wing extremist groups by asking its nearly 2 million members to flood the paper with emails relating "good stories" about their experiences in the military and as veterans.
The op-ed piece by a Northwestern University professor used FBI data to argue that war-returned veterans have historically played a part in a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups.
Kathleen Belew, a history professor at Northwestern, wrote the piece after Frazer Glenn Miller, 73, a former KKK leader and a Vietnam veteran, shot and killed three people at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, Kan.
"The First Amendment protects the free speech and expression rights of this young author, and the rights of the New York Times to publish it, but it also protects my right to disagree with the message," VFW National Commander William A. Thien said Wednesday.
Thien, who served in Vietnam, said the piece by Belew conjures classic stereotypes of the ticking timebomb Vietnam veteran that became part of pop culture during the 1970s.
"The 'crazy Vietnam veteran' label isn't talked about much these days, yet despite 40 years of moving on with our lives and successfully reintegrating into our communities, we all know the potential is just another headline away," Thien said.
Thien is asking VFW members to send their comments directly to the Times, not Belew, and to make them "positive," such as saying they came back from war, went to work, raised a family and continue to help give back to their community and country.
Thien was joined in his condemnation of Belew's column by Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff, who founded and heads Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff called the column "sensational, slanderous and incredibly offensive to veterans."
He said the title -- "Veterans and White Supremacy"-- and an accompanying illustration of silhouetted soldiers saluting, with one rendering the fascist salute, are shameful. The column was hurtful to veterans, he said, and the Times owes veterans an apology.
"After more than a decade of sacrifice, no veteran should have to open the newspaper and read an op-ed linking them to hate groups," he said.
Belew did not respond to Military.com's request for comment.
Belew, who is at work on a book entitled Bring the War Home: Vigilantism, Race, and Violence from Vietnam to Oklahoma City, said Miller's history of hate group involvement has long been known to the FBI and so he should have been known as a possible threat.
She believes that because Miller was white and a veteran, law enforcement paid little attention to him, despite his history.
"Would he have received greater scrutiny had he been a Muslim, a foreigner, not white, not a veteran?" she asked in her column.
"Before his 1979 discharge for distributing racist literature, Mr. Miller served for 20 years in the Army," she wrote. "Later that year he took part (but was not charged) in a deadly shooting of Communist protesters in Greensboro, N.C."
In 1980, Miller organized a KKK-affiliated group in North Carolina later known as the White Patriot Party, she said. Members wore military camouflage uniforms and paraded up and down public streets with weapons, patrolling schools and polling places to "protect" whites from harassment, she wrote.
By 1986, according to the FBI documents Belew cites, his group had about 2,500 members in five southern states.
Belew said a 2008 Department of Homeland Security report -- compiled during the Bush administration but released in 2009 -- "singled out one factor that has fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present: war."
The report found that extremist groups look to recruit veterans, and warned that vets having difficulty reintegrating into civilian society could be vulnerable.
"Extremist leaders seek to recruit members with military experience in order to exploit their discipline, knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactics, skills and access to weapons and intelligence," the 2008 report said.
That report was met with a great deal of criticism by veterans groups when it was released. The American Legion, in a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, said it is "important for all of us to remember that Americans are not the enemy. The terrorists are."
Napolitano apologized for releasing the report and officially withdrew it.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.