Advocates Worry About Uncommon, But Growing Radicalization Among Veterans

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon/AP File Photo)

Chris Buckley was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, addicted to hatred after his deployment with the Kentucky National Guard to Afghanistan. There, he saw his best friend killed. 

“Daniel died in my arms while I was trying to push his brain back into his skull,” he told lawmakers Thursday at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on extremism. 

After his traumatizing experience in Afghanistan, and his own injuries, he was led down a dark road laced with drug addiction and a hatred for Muslims. He had suicidal thoughts, even reaching out for help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but received little more than pills. 

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“I would still have been a KKK member had it not been for the intervention of my wife,” he said. “My 4-year-old son had started asking for his own KKK outfit. And my wife had just had enough. She suffered as I suffered, and I was about to pass my sufferings to my young innocent son, too. She gave me an ultimatum: it was going to be either her and my son or KKK and the drugs.”

He says he’s “ashamed” of his association with white supremacy and now aims to deradicalize other veterans. 

Buckley is just one of what many advocates fear is a growing roster of veterans and current service members becoming radicalized. One study by a Washington think tank found that between 2019 and 2020, the percentage of domestic terrorism attacks committed by active-duty and reserve personnel quadrupled.

There’s no singular pipeline to falling into extremism. Instead, it’s a multi-pronged problem consisting of dishonest media leading consumers down an algorithm-powered rabbit hole to more radical personalities peddling conspiracy theories and disinformation often backed by foreign adversaries - namely Russia and China. 

“Social media personalities promote veterans and the veteran brand to develop large followings under the guise of ‘supporting the troops,’” said Chris Purdy, director for veterans for American ideals and outreach at Human Rights First, an advocacy organization. “Status became something that could be packaged, marketed and sold on a T-shirt or in a bag of coffee.”

There’s scant evidence veterans are more or less prone to fall into extremism. However, experts have warned they can serve as force multipliers with the inherent credibility veterans often bring to groups. Even those with short military careers with minimal combat training can still prove dangerous. 

“We found that among far-right terrorists active during the 1980s and 1990s, approximately one-third had military experience,” Peter Simi, associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in California, told lawmakers.

Some estimates found 12% of individuals arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol were veterans. That attack, fueled by conspiracy theories of a fraudulent election peddled by then-President Donald Trump, prompted widespread concerns over how pervasive extremism is within the ranks and in the veteran community. 

“I was horrified and angry to find out how many veterans were among the insurrectionists that day,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz, said. “Veterans were overrepresented among those insurrectionists.”

Yet the military has had its own problem disciplining those who took part in the assault. Pfc. Abram Markofski, a Wisconsin National Guard infantryman, was found guilty for being a part of the mob that sought to subvert the peaceful transition of power. Despite that, he is being allowed to continue his service in the military. 

Veterans are being increasingly recruited by far-right groups, like the Oath Keepers, who, on the lead-up to the Capitol assault, went through a military-inspired planning process and built up arms at a nearby hotel to prepare for what they thought would become an insurgency to keep Trump in power, despite losing the election. 

“I was on the House floor when the Capitol was attacked. It was my Marine training that kicked in and allowed me to help the other members on the floor to put on their gas masks, keep calm and unfortunately prepare to fight. Other members who are veterans helped as well,” Gallego said. “Many of the Capitol police officers are veterans as well. I was grateful there were veterans in the Capitol to fight for our colleagues and defend democracy.”

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Inside the Oath Keepers' Plan for an Armed Takeover of the US Capitol

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