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Post-riot effort to tackle extremism in the military largely overlooks veterans

Rioters fight to gain access to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
Rioters fight to gain access to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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The Defense Department is focusing on how to weed out possible extremists from the active-duty ranks in the wake of the Capitol riot, with a recent military-wide “stand-down” for troops to discuss the issue ahead of policy decisions on the matter by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

But the arrest data from the riot shows that allegedly criminal participation in the insurrection on Jan. 6 was far more prevalent among veterans than active-duty forces, a more difficult problem for the U.S. government to address.

Of the nearly 380 individuals federally charged in connection with the riot, at least 44 are current or former members of the U.S. armed forces, according to service records and data compiled by The Washington Post. At least three other veterans are among more than two dozen people charged in D.C. Superior Court with offenses like trespassing and curfew violations.

Apart from two Army reservists and a National Guard soldier, all the defendants with military ties are veterans.

Members of the active-duty force have been found to harbor extremist sympathies in a series of high-profile incidents in recent years, prompting concern about the scope of the problem in the ranks. But the far larger presence of veterans among the cohort of those charged in relation to the Jan. 6 riot raises questions about whether the U.S. government will focus on those who have left the military in its effort to tackle extremism. So far veterans do not appear to be getting much targeted attention.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has no dedicated program to combat extremism among former members of the military and has resisted calls to address other factors that contribute to domestic radicalization, such as online disinformation that targets veterans to inflame political tensions.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said last month that the agency would “take a look” at what VA could do to combat extremism among veterans.

In a statement, VA said that it is “among a group of agencies meeting on the topic” but that VA’s scope is limited to explaining resources available to veterans, such as behavioral and mental-health care and suicide prevention.

The efforts by the Defense Department to focus on active-duty forces come as the Biden administration conducts a broader review of the U.S. government’s approach to domestic extremism. In an unclassified report issued in March, the U.S. intelligence community warned that domestic violent extremism poses an “elevated” threat to the United States.

Under Biden, the Department of Homeland Security is stepping up its efforts to prevent domestic extremism, but it hasn’t announced any initiatives specific to veterans. In a statement, a department official said DHS “has made addressing domestic violent extremism a top priority” and is “working to expand our ability to detect and mitigate the threat of violence by those inspired by extremist ideologies.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Defense Department is looking into educating service members as they leave the U.S. military about extremist groups “waiting on the other side to recruit them.”

“We wouldn’t have the resources and certainly don’t have the authorities to be checking up on veterans,” Kirby said in an interview. “What we can do is take a hard look at the potential for radicalization while they’re in the ranks, while we do have purview over them, and we can see what we can do to ensure they make their transition to civilian life in the most informed way possible.”

The Defense Department can bring certain retired officers back to active-duty status to hold them accountable for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the set of rules that governs the U.S. armed forces, Kirby said, but such recalls are rare and apply only to a limited category of retirees. Very few of the veterans charged in relation to the riot would qualify to face UCMJ discipline.

A greater threat

Whether the U.S. government should focus anti-extremism measures on veterans remains a subject of some debate.

A report this month from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, which examined the role of veterans in the riot, found that the percentage of male veterans who have been charged with crimes in relation to Jan. 6 so far is roughly akin to the portion of male veterans in the U.S. population overall, raising questions about whether veterans should be singled out for prevention efforts.

But the authors, Daniel Milton and Andrew Mines, also said that military experience has a “force-multiplying” effect for domestic extremist organizations, bringing them legitimacy as well as leadership and weapons experience and making veteran involvement a greater threat. The authors found that riot defendants with military experience were roughly four times more likely to be part of domestic violent extremist groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, than lone actors.

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The report by Milton and Mines recommended creating a combined government task force to be led jointly by the Defense Department and VA to deal with the issue. The task force, they said, should collect data on criminal and noncriminal extremism-related incidents among service members and veterans, and use that information to refine, expand and target current U.S. government warnings on the topic.

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the military could consider going a step further and, in certain circumstances, claw back benefits from veterans engaged in extremist activities. At a minimum, she said, the government can work with veterans groups to increase awareness.

“There could be a lot more done to work with the veterans associations to take stands against extremism,” Beirich said, noting that right-wing extremist groups often target veterans as recruits.

The overwhelming majority of veterans have no link to domestic extremism, and most bristle at being associated with the tiny fraction of former service members who do. But Beirich said the issue can be tackled without smearing an entire category of Americans. “I don’t think addressing a problem tarnishes all veterans,” she said.

Focus on lost dignity

Some veterans who found a common identity and shared values in uniform can struggle to find the same connection after transitioning to civilian life.

“So many people choose military service for connectedness and community,” said Kori Schake, an expert on civilian and military relations at the American Enterprise Institute.

Nonprofit groups such as Team Rubicon and the Mission Continues have organized around the principle that veterans desire community and a sense of purpose after leaving the military — and can find it again through service to others. 

But extremist groups are adept at exploiting that same desire, Schake said, and conspiracy-laden beliefs such as QAnon may also appeal to veterans looking for answers in an often challenging post-military life.

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Arie Kruglanski, a professor at the University of Maryland and expert on the psychology of radicalization, said that leaving the military can challenge a person’s identity.

“There is a big disparity between being glorified, feeling respected in the military, and your status as a veteran,” Kruglanski said, noting that there is often a big “letdown” associated with the transition to civilian life.

Kruglanski, who is conducting a study on extremism among U.S. military veterans together with the University of Southern California, said far-right and white-supremacist groups can attract veterans in particular because those movements tend to valorize military activity and promise a restoration of lost dignity, all while stoking the sense that the government has somehow betrayed its citizens.

Feelings of betrayal were central to the events of Jan. 6, after President Donald Trump rallied his followers by convincing them falsely that the election had been stolen from them.

The veterans who responded to Trump’s call had a wide variety of service experiences.

Most had unremarkable military duties, ranging from mechanics to warehouse clerks. The most common job was infantry, but fewer than half overall deployed to a combat zone, according to a Post analysis.

The service records of at least seven veterans revealed some evidence of misconduct, including low rank at discharge and truncated enlistments. For instance, one had been stripped of rank and kicked out of the Army with a punitive discharge after going absent without leave, officials said.

Others had more-skilled and technical backgrounds, including one former Green Beret who specialized in tactical communication. Another served as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer. One Marine Corps veteran, a former helicopter crew chief, received a specialized top-secret clearance to serve in the squadron that maintains the presidential helicopter.

Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran and QAnon evangelist who was in the riot, is not included in the count. She was fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer while she tried to breach a set of doors inside the building.

Fostering positive connections

One preventive measure — a frank discussion with service members about the challenges of plugging back into society — could be added to the materials and programs that service members receive when they leave the military, Schake said.

Civil society can also embrace veterans in a more proactive way, she said, by looking to other examples as a road map. Religious groups foster connections among refugees settling in the United States, for instance, and leaders deliberately anchor them within communities, she said.

Groups such as American Legion chapters and Rotary Clubs could act as tributaries to direct veterans to positive connections.

“It’s going to take involvement of all levels of society to solve this problem,” including government, nonprofits and individuals, said Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The Defense Department has unique power to bar active-duty service members from involvement in extremist groups and to weed out those who violate guidelines, Butler said. But VA can speak about the issue, he said, and “foster a culture . . . that disavows extremism and promotes racial justice.”

Ana Álvarez, Tobi Raji, Sarah Salem, Aaron Schaffer, Maya Smith and Sarah Welch contributed to this report.