At least five members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front who were arrested near an Idaho Pride event last week had a military background -- one is a current member of the National Guard -- continuing the disturbing trend of military members and veterans playing key roles in extremist groups and being charged with crimes.
Winston Durham was among the 31 members of the far-right group authorities say were packed inside a U-Haul truck, wearing their signature khakis, blue shirts, beige hats and white masks and allegedly planning to disrupt the Pride event. The men had shin guards, riot shields and a smoke grenade. All were charged with conspiracy, a misdemeanor.
Durham serves as a cadet in the Idaho Army National Guard's 1-148 Field Artillery Regiment. He enlisted into the National Guard in February 2019 and became a cadet in January 2020 through Washington State University's Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, program. He has been placed on leave pending the outcome of his criminal case, an Army spokesperson told Military.com.
Cadets in the National Guard often attend a unit's training events, which range from administrative tasks, to firing weapons and training combat tactics. Those events are traditionally one weekend per month, with cadets effectively serving as interns for a unit's officers, on top of their full-time cadet military training and schooling.
Cadets have limited military training, but even understanding the basics of weapons, tactics and the military's planning process can be difficult for law enforcement to combat and has been a key concern as radical groups increasingly seek to recruit members with military backgrounds.
The other four Patriot Front members arrested were veterans with relatively short service histories.
Lawrence Norman, 32, and Wesley Van Horn, 34, were both Navy veterans, the service confirmed to Military.com. Norman served as a gunner's mate for four years, rising to the rank of petty officer third class before his separation in 2015. Van Horn served as a builder with the SeaBees for nearly four years before leaving the Navy in 2010 as a seaman.
The awards for the two men suggest both deployed with the Navy, and Van Horn earned the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.
Forty-year-old James Johnson served in the Air Force, the service confirmed, though it was not able to offer any details beyond a separation year of 2005. Johnson said he was a "U.S. Air Force Spanish linguist and trainer of future airmen leaders" in a biography written when he ran for the Cheyenne, Wyoming, City Council in 2020.
Patriot Front, along with other groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, seeks those with a military background to fill its ranks, even if that experience is minimal, because of the inherent social credibility those recruits potentially bring. And those recruits are frequently social outcasts, often unsatisfied economically and romantically or frustrated with other aspects of their lives, and are starved for belonging, according to Kristofer Goldsmith, senior fellow with the Innovation Lab at Human Rights First.
"They promise camaraderie and brotherhood that these guys are not getting," Goldsmith, an Army veteran who studies extremism, told Military.com. "It's white rage. They feel they were owed something for being a white male and were denied it. They don't have good jobs, generally speaking. Some are easily manipulated; others are well off and intelligent who recognize that being a part of a group makes them powerful."
Patriot Front, an organization led by Thomas Rousseau, got its start out of the ashes of the deadly "Unite the Right'' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Rousseau led a contingent of Vanguard America members and other white supremacists to that rally. Following Rousseau during his march was James Alex Fields Jr., the man who would go on to murder anti-racist protester Heather Heyer by driving his car into a crowd of protesters.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Patriot Front formed when Rousseau, driven in part by a disagreement on how to best promote their cause to the greater public, broke off from Vanguard America.
Goldsmith noted that the group's current uniform of khakis and white masks is "an evolution of the khakis and blue polo shirt uniform that they used when they were Vanguard America at Charlottesville."
Rousseau favored a kind of American nationalism that leans heavily into symbols and icons rooted in Americana instead of Nazi-era imagery. The group often rallies with modified American flags that feature a bundle of sticks with an ax, the original symbol of fascism, encircled by 13 stars instead of the usual 50 white stars. Their website and manifesto are adorned in red, white and blue symbols with quotes from figures like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Gen. George Patton.
Both the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the ADL categorize the group as a white supremacist organization, and the SPLC notes that Patriot Front's manifesto calls for the formation of a white ethnostate.
Service members and veterans becoming radicalized into far-right groups has gotten more attention on Capitol Hill following the Jan. 6 attack meant to stop the certification of President Joe Biden's victory, with those groups playing a central role in the riot.
Military leaders are still grappling with determining how many in their formations are falling into extremist ideology while still in uniform, or joining the ranks with sympathy toward those movements. In addition, advocates have been pushing for the military services to do more to prepare service members when they separate to rebuff recruiting pitches from extremist groups.
But even when troops are found guilty of participating in extremist plots, removing them from the force can take a long time, especially in the National Guard.
Pfc. Abram Markofski, an infantryman in the Wisconsin National Guard's Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment, pleaded guilty to his role in the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, when he was part of the mob that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to keep then-President Donald Trump in power.
However, the National Guard has allowed him to continue his military training, potentially granting him access to weapons and ammunition, while his case played out in the civilian courts. Six months after his guilty plea, he continues to serve, according to Maj. Gretel Weiskopf, a Guard spokesperson. He is in the middle of being separated, but it is unclear what is holding that process up.
Markofski was not known to be part of any radical groups before the riot, only traveling to Washington, D.C., with a friend shortly after he washed out of Special Forces Assessment and Selection after failing the Army's standard physical fitness test.
Cpl. Jacob Fracker, an infantryman with the Virginia National Guard, is also in the midst of being separated from the service component. But his state did not allow him to continue training with his unit.
Following the attack on the Capitol, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a so-called extremism stand-down for units to discuss combating radicalization within the ranks. However, multiple sources told Military.com at the time that their respective units did not even do the mandatory stand-down, or that it was mostly an afterthought.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.