Trading on Patriotism: How Extremist Groups Target and Radicalize Veterans

Illustration by Elize McKelvey
(Illustration by Elize McKelvey)

This article is the first in a series looking at how extremist groups target veterans for recruitment and the paths toward and away from radicalization. Sign up here so you don’t miss our next major report.

Ken Parker had been out of the Navy for about two years and was struggling to find a good job when he went to his first Ku Klux Klan rally.

He'd watched TV shows about white supremacists, and saw that the KKK had planned a rally in a small North Carolina town that wasn't too far away, billed as a "family event for whites only" with a cross-burning at dark, according to local media reports.

Parker, frustrated over a lousy economy and a lack of job prospects, went to the 2012 gathering, which had been chased across the border into rural Virginia by protesters.

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Chris Barker, a KKK leader in North Carolina who litters his racism with near-constant references to Scripture, took the stage that night and preached to the gathered crowd that all Jewish people represent Satan and should be killed, Parker remembered during a recent interview with

Parker hadn't realized that the KKK was antisemitic, but something clicked for him.

"I was like, I'm gonna get my Bible and prove this guy wrong and change the way he thinks on that topic, but everything else seems OK so far," said Parker, who is no longer involved with hate groups and now works as an HVAC technician in Florida. "But, you know, within a matter of weeks, I was reading my Bible trying to cherry-pick things out to hate Jews."

The rally crystallized his racist thinking and began a years-long journey starting with the KKK and culminating in a leadership position with the National Socialist Movement, the modern incarnation of Naziism in America.

Parker had put in 11 years of service on submarines in the Navy and rose to the rank of chief petty officer, but it just didn't seem to count for much when he got out and tried to find a job in the civilian workforce in 2010, searching in the wake of the last great financial crisis.

He moved to Georgia and tried for a job on a military base, but his anger grew when he realized that was mostly out of reach.

"They would end up giving it to an active-duty guy because they can pay them way less. I was so mad and frustrated that I couldn't find a decent job anywhere," he said. "And you're sitting around drinking beer, and you're applying for jobs to keep your unemployment going."

Parker is just one of the countless veterans and service members who have been swept up into a new wave of extremism, the latest chapter in the country's long history of hate and violence.

The issue of extremist groups has gained attention after the riot on Jan. 6 aimed at preventing the peaceful transfer of the presidency in 2021, violence that was spearheaded by several groups that actively recruit veterans. But this latest rise of white supremacy, antisemitism and anti-government activity goes much deeper.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say 'explosion,'" said Pete Simi, associate professor in the sociology department of Chapman University in California and an author who has studied extremism for 20 years, categorizing the latest wave of extremism. "You have just growing numbers of people that are talking about the use of political violence as a legitimate way to resolve conflict, the idea that, within the near future, a civil war is actually a realistic outcome that could occur."

Parker's story shines a light on how those who take the oath to serve and protect America can be pulled into the orbit of extremist groups. And those organizations are hungry for members with the skills and prestige that military service brings. The National Socialist Movement and Oath Keepers, among others, have turned predatory, wooing troops and veterans with psychological tactics such as appealing to their sense of patriotism and drive to serve a purpose larger than themselves.

While there's no evidence that veterans participate in extremist groups at a higher rate than the general public, they often play significant leadership roles and are thrust into the spotlight when those groups threaten violence.

Over the past five years, particularly, the extremism threat has surged, fueled by a deeply divided country and a population plugged into internet silos where extreme, hateful and violent messaging and recruiting have flourished.

All along, there have been warning signs. Many experts now point to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Army veteran Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 as a sign of the risks tied to radicalized veterans. An FBI report from 2008 that was subsequently withdrawn under political pressure said that white supremacists and other hate groups were recruiting members with military experience who had "the potential to reinvigorate an extremist movement suffering from loss of leadership and in-fighting during the post-9/11 period."

Just since December, Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, a veteran, and five members of his extremist group were convicted of seditious conspiracy for the insurrection on Jan. 6, the first time a group had marched on the U.S. Capitol and forced its way inside since the War of 1812. Five members of the Proud Boys extremist group -- including an Army combat veteran with a Purple Heart, two former Marines and a sailor recruit who washed out in boot camp -- are being tried for seditious conspiracy for their roles.

So, how do service members become involved with these groups, and what part does military experience play?

How Veterans Get Lured into Extremist Groups

Extremist groups have long urged members to join the military to get training in weapons, tactics and leadership. Other troops are radicalized while in the military by extremists already in the ranks, such as Wade Page, a neo-Nazi who was believed to have been initiated into the movement at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while in the Army. Page walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and fatally gunned down six people and wounded four others.

The most common route to extremism may be post-service, when veterans such as Parker struggle to make peace with their time in the military and try to forge a new life as a civilian.

"After their time in the military, they may feel some kind of disconnect," Simi said. "They may be suffering from various kinds of trauma, especially if they've been in combat."

Groups, such as Patriot Front, Atomwaffen, Oath Keepers and the Nazis, ape the military and actively recruit members and veterans because they see them as an asset to whatever cause they are pursuing, whether it be eliminating ethnic minorities or overthrowing the government.

"We were sending people in to get the training and things like that and said don't recruit on base, keep it quiet," Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the National Socialist Movement, or NSM, said in a recent interview. "Of course, there were certain people that did try to recruit on base, and there were some times they were thrown out or discharged."

Schoep was in the Nazi movement for more than two decades, rising to the top before leaving in 2019. He has now founded a group, Beyond Barriers, aimed at combating extremism.

He spent years recruiting for the Nazis and said military experience was a key component.

"When I was in the NSM back in, say, the early 2000s, late '90s, approximately about 10% of the organization had military service," Schoep said. "It went from 10% military experience to closer to 40% to 50% with military experience by the time I left because that was something that we were specifically focusing on."

The Nazis found that members with military experience made better leaders, and they were often tapped for regional or state positions in the group, according to Schoep. The structure of the National Socialist Movement was similar to the military's hierarchy as well, including uniforms, so the group felt service members and veterans could easily adapt.

"This was something that we had on our application forms and, in later years, we would ask people to send in their DD-214s, so we could see what branches they were in and what ranks they had, things like that, because we specifically were targeting the military to get them involved," he said, referencing the DD-214 form given to service members when they leave military service.

Marchers bearing the insignia of the white supremacist group Patriot Front.
Marchers bearing the insignia of the white supremacist group Patriot Front parade through Boston Common on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

While Nazi recruitment relied partly on paperwork, another extremist group, Patriot Front, relies on the internet.

On a sleek website, the group advertises its core ideology -- domination of the U.S. by whites of European descent -- and offers a sign-up page proclaiming, "Your nation needs you," an echo of years of military recruiting posters going back to World War II. Its members always appear masked in public, hiding their true identities. The group claims the current U.S. government is illegitimate and must be overhauled or abolished.

"An unwavering resistance will meet all enemies of the people and the nation, both foreign and domestic," the group's website says, repurposing language from the oath of enlistment taken by everyone who serves in the military.

Five members of Patriot Front, who were arrested in June for allegedly making plans to disrupt a gay pride parade in Idaho, had military backgrounds, and one was in the National Guard. The men were riding in a U-Haul truck and had shin guards, riot shields and a smoke grenade, according to authorities.

"I was always very fascinated with their military organization and structure. They seemed very well organized at the time. They marched in step, they had drums, they had flags -- I found it very interesting," Christopher Semok, 19, told in a recent interview, his speech sprinkled with youthful interjections of "you know" and "whatnot."

In photos posted by anti-fascist activists, Semok is a thin, young kid with bleached blonde hair. His profile becomes distinctly more menacing in photos taken at rallies where he donned a black leather jacket over old military camouflage and a Nazi combat helmet.

After years of gravitating toward militaristic extremism and white supremacy, by age 17, Semok considered himself fully radicalized.

He first joined the Patriot Front and then moved on to the National Socialist Movement. The Nazi group, which follows Adolf Hitler's example, summed up the year 2022 on its website: "We are the storm on the horizon that the Jew can no longer ignore."

In Semok's experience in the groups, there were always reminders of the military. In Patriot Front, members who were veterans referenced their experience and used it for group training.

"In Tallahassee, there was a training camp, where we had a guy, who I think was an Air Force lieutenant in the past, kind of walk us through basic drill and basic drill commands like, left face, right face ... and how to properly march in step," Semok said.

Semok had come from a broken home -- a father who went to prison and mother who was a drug addict -- but the relationship with his family finally snapped and he was kicked out of the house for going to a Nazi rally in Orlando in January 2022.

A higher-up in the Nazi group, who took him in, was a former Marine.

Still, Semok said he began to question why he was involved in white supremacy.

Last fall, Semok was approached by a Marine recruiter. It seemed like an opportunity to start over. He enlisted in the Marines and claims he cut ties with the Nazis.

But the Marine Corps booted him from its delayed-entry program after discovering his membership with Patriot Front and the Nazis. Anti-fascist groups exposed Semok's participation in the groups and dug up evidence that he committed vandalism and harassment in Florida, as well as the photos of him in a World War II-era German military helmet.

The Broader Boogaloo Movement and Violence

Neo-Nazis aren't the only ones to make headlines in recent years for their efforts to recruit veterans. A number of those who have donned the uniform have become followers of the anti-government Boogaloo movement, which seeks another U.S. civil war.

Steven Carrillo was an Air Force sergeant and Boogaloo adherent when he murdered a federal security officer and injured another in Oakland, California, in 2020. Last year, he was sentenced to 41 years in prison.

An Air Force veteran, Navy veteran and a member of the Air Force reserves in Nevada were charged with conspiracy against the government in 2020 for allegedly plotting to blow up a power station and attack a Black Lives Matter protest as part of the Boogaloo movement.

But potentially most alarming is the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division -- described as "terroristic" by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which has attracted military followers.

Brandon Russell joined the Florida National Guard less than six months after founding the hate group in Tampa in 2015. After his roommate murdered his two other roommates, police discovered Russell's connections to Nazi ideology, and he was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 for possessing a high explosive used by terrorists, along with pounds of other bomb-making materials, empty shell casings, fuses and electric matches.

On Feb. 3, Russell was arrested again along with his girlfriend and charged by federal authorities with a plot to destroy substations to bring down the electrical grid in Baltimore. He allegedly touted white supremacist literature during the planning. Russell had pushed for multiple attacks on substations to amplify the effect on the city, cutting off residents at times of intense cold or heat when lack of access to electricity could be deadly.

In another case, three former Marines were charged in 2021 in a plot to blow up power stations in the northwestern U.S., possibly with homemade Thermite explosives. Two who were charged had met on a neo-Nazi online forum, and the men also allegedly made an Atomwaffen propaganda video.

Nearly all of these extremist groups advertise membership as another way to serve the country, but participation is always turned toward their own hateful or destructive goals, such as harassing racial minorities, pushing for America to become a white ethno-state, sparking a civil war or attacking the federal government.

For Parker, the Navy veteran who was first inspired by a Klan rally, the white supremacy at the heart of his extremism never came from his service.

"I didn't really see too much racism, I mean, especially on submarines. You have to count on every single last person on that boat to do their job if they need to," Parker said. "Otherwise, the entire ship is going to die.

"When I left, I didn't consider myself a racist person," he said.

Extremist groups know that dynamic, the reliance on the person in the foxhole next to you, and they've preyed upon it successfully.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, center, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, June 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Of all the extremist groups, the Oath Keepers may be the most blatant about their veteran recruiting.

"The messaging is always we're a community of veterans," Jason van Tatenhove, the former national media director for the Oath Keepers, said in an interview. "Part of the MO was going after people that were vulnerable, that were having some difficulties in life and felt isolated and alienated.

"Because those are the people that you can come and say, 'Hey, we have an important mission for you and that's to help save the country,'" he said.

Rhodes, an eye patch-wearing Army veteran and Yale Law School graduate, was the charismatic leader of the group who directed the activity and outreach, eventually leading a group of members to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. He was found guilty in November of seditious conspiracy as the mastermind of a plot to block Congress from certifying President Joe Biden's election win.

Former service members "yearn for that community again," and Rhodes was able to provide it through Oath Keepers activities such as community preparedness teams and training, according to van Tatenhove.

"Usually, 95% of the time, it was on military techniques," he said. "Anything from land navigation to, you know, field-stripping rifles to rappelling to small team tactics."

Jessica Watkins was among the group of Oath Keepers dressed in military-style gear who pushed through the rioting crowd in a "stack" formation -- a tactic used by military units -- to breach the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

During her own November court trial, she testified about the trauma of struggling secretly with being transgender while deployed to Afghanistan and how she went AWOL out of fear it would be discovered.

Watkins had served as an Army Ranger, and an early dismissal from the service "haunted her for the duration of her life," her attorney told the court, according to The Associated Press.

Watkins, an Ohio member of the militia, went to the Capitol after being steeped in online lies about the 2020 election being stolen. As she broke into the building, amid the riot in her military gear and hand radio, she testified that she felt involved in a "very American moment."

But by the time she stood trial, the spell had broken. Watkins called her participation really stupid and told the court she was "just another idiot" at the Capitol. Her attorney asked her on the stand whether she was proud of what she did.

"Not anymore," said Watkins, who was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and other charges.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

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

Related: The Military Still Has No Good Way to Spot Extremist Recruits and Troops on Social Media

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