In a hearing rife with partisan bickering, House lawmakers battled over how to help veterans being targeted for recruitment by domestic extremist groups, an issue that got a surge of attention after dozens of veterans were arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection.
At least 66 veterans have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, in which supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol while lawmakers were meeting to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“We are not here to condemn or vilify any veterans engaged with these groups, but rather to draw attention to what these groups actually represent and to highlight the lurking threat posed by these groups,” House Veterans Affairs committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said.
While the insurrection has been the most immediate impetus for lawmakers’ concerns about extremist groups’ recruiting veterans, witnesses Wednesday said the issue is longstanding, highlighting extremist acts ranging from Marine veteran Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy to Army veteran Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
The percentage of veterans involved in domestic extremist groups is small, and there is no evidence extremism is more prevalent among veterans than the wider population, but the experts testifying before the committee argued veterans make attractive recruits because of their military training and because they can be vulnerable if they are struggling to adjust to civilian life.
“They provide them with a tribe, a simplistic view of the world and its problems, actionable solutions and a sense of purpose, and then they feed these vulnerable individuals a concoction of lies and an unrelenting narrative of political and social grievance,” retired Marine Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler said.
“While veterans who participate in domestic terrorism may be few, they can be extremely dangerous,” added Plenzler, pointing to “shocking” data that veterans have been connected to 10% of domestic terrorist attacks since 2015 despite making up just 6% of the population.
According to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6.4% of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots in 2020 were committed by one or more active-duty or reserve members, compared with 1.5% in 2019.
Hearing testimony from veterans advocates and academics, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee sought answers on how best to protect veterans from falling victim to recruitment from white supremist and anti-government groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.
Takano argued for alerting veterans to ongoing targeting by extremist groups.
“This effort could include helping them to recognize that they are being recruited, aiding them in exiting these groups and addressing the pervasive underlying factors that contribute to such recruitment, including critical issues such as mental health, underemployment and social isolation,” Takano said.
The hearing frequently devolved into partisanship, as Republicans accused Democrats of vilifying veterans and ignoring property damage by left-wing groups such as Black Lives Matter and anti-fascists that the GOP characterized as extremist.
“Mr. Chairman, I think this hearing is offensive and the fact that you’re going to save our veterans from becoming political terrorists is offensive to every veteran in America,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., a Navy reservist who chairs a conservative House bloc called the Republican Study Committee.
Jeremy Butler, who leads Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and was testifying Wednesday, shot back at Banks, arguing he was contributing to the problem by trying to score political points rather than engaging with the substance of the issue.
“I think the type of questions that you’re asking are what are part of the problem here,” Butler told Banks in response to a question about “vilifying” red meat eaters and parents who oppose critical race theory. “We’re using lies, we’re using obfuscation, misinformation to avoid addressing the real issues that this country is facing.”
In an ongoing member survey that has so far elicited about 3,500 responses, IAVA has found that a third of respondents believe there’s a serious problem with extremism in the military and the post-9/11 veterans community, and have personally witnessed extremism, Butler said.
Among the solutions witnesses offered up is to include training in the Transition Assistance Program to educate service members moving to civilian life on how to identify extremist recruiting and propaganda.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first in what Takano has promised will be a series of three hearings. The other two, which have yet to be scheduled, will focus on specific recruiting methods used on veterans and resources available to at-risk veterans.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.