Joe Plenzler and Scott Cooper are both retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonels and combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Thank you for your service." Since 9/11, we have heard these words of appreciation.
But what if, instead of enjoying America's admiration and respect, military veterans were automatically assumed to be disloyal insurrectionists seeking to overthrow the government? What would America look like if veterans were distrusted and considered dangerous to our civil liberties?
The Jan. 6 insurrection should be a wake-up call for all veterans, especially since veterans were among the leaders of the mob and over-represented among those arrested. About 13% of the people arrested and charged with crimes were veterans, though vets make up only about 7% of the overall population. About 40% of the veterans arrested were Marines, who are supposed to be our nation's most elite and loyal troops.
It is clear that a significant number of our compatriots have lost their way. We witnessed the violence, and our shock and anger have now turned to resolve. We know the veteran community cannot remain silent bystanders to this assault on American values. We all must stand up, speak out and remind our veteran community of our common values and our duties as citizens in post-military life.
As combat veterans, we were shocked and appalled to see fellow veterans assault the seat of our democratic republic and others cheering them on. All of us swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, and any veteran who crossed the line from peaceful protester to violent insurrectionist should be arrested, charged, prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law. We condemn their actions in the strongest terms. Any veteran committing insurrection brings shame and dishonor to our community.
Veteran involvement so alarmed senior military leadership that the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent an unprecedented letter to the force condemning the attack and reminding service members, "We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, value, and oath; it is against the law."
While we are confident that the new secretary of defense will take swift action to cull extremists from the ranks and prevent them from joining, he has little influence over how veterans conduct themselves, and this is where the veteran community needs to police its own.
The active-duty force comprises 1.2 million service members, but there are more than 18 million veterans in the United States today. Our country's veteran service organizations have a critical role to play in restoring America's faith in our institutions and our system of government. We believe there are three critical things they should do.
1. Wake Up
The fact that so many veterans attacked the Capitol to stop Congress from declaring the winner of a presidential election should be a wake-up call to us all. This was not merely trespassing or damage of federal property. It was an assault on everything that military members swear to defend.
We live in a dangerous era full of political partisanship, and it is vital to our long-term stability and prosperity for people of good faith to come to the middle and work for the common good. There is an expression in the military that we all bleed green -- that it doesn't matter where you come from, the color of your skin, what God you pray to, or what political party to which you choose to belong. We are Americans, and we serve the same cause: our country. As veterans, we must recommit ourselves to these values.
2. Speak Out
We were heartened by the "Statement on the Peaceful Transfer of Power," in which a group of 39 veteran and military family organizations joined together in "condemning this violent attack on our country." But too few of America's largest veteran service organizations spoke out and condemned the insurrectionists. A wise sergeant major once taught us that "the wrongs we observe and ignore, we condone." We must support our democracy.
3. Police Our Own
Veteran groups should purge their rolls of any member who was part of the mob and remind their members of our values. Our good reputation as veterans has been earned both on the battlefield and by our example as good citizens.
We believe our country is at a crossroads with a choice between continued division and eventual demise or good-faith cooperation, healing and strength. We call on all of America's veterans and the veteran organizations that represent them to once again display their courage, refuse to be silent, and speak out for what is right. We live in troubling times, but we can once again defend America by working to reunite our people.
May we live up to Gen. George Washington's words when he commended his troops: "When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen."
Our greatest service in uniting and healing our country lies ahead.
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