Jon Ritzheimer sat down in front of a video camera last month and aired a series of grievances about the federal government, the media and the way he saw the United States changing before his eyes. With a red, white and blue flag representing a resistance group known as the Three Percenters draped behind him, the Marine Corps veteran expressed frustration that a colleague had been arrested by federal investigators.
“History belongs to those that write it,” said Ritzheimer, a slight glare shining off his shaved head as he furrowed his brow. “And I for one do not believe we should allow this government to write our history — labeling myself and other honorable veterans out there as terrorists.”
Ritzheimer, 32, is an Iraq war veteran, former truck driver and staff sergeant in the Marine Corps. He said the federal government had just “illegally kidnapped” a “fellow brother,” Schuyler P. Barbeau, another Marine veteran. Barbeau was arrested in Washington state for possession of an unregistered firearm.
Three weeks later, Ritzheimer is a central figure in the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge near rural Burns, Ore. He’s hardly the first veteran to become involved in armed groups that say they fight for the rights of private citizens, but the involvement of people with a military background there has prompted renewed interest in the “patriot movement” and the role of veterans in it.
While veterans, like most of the country, are split in their opinions on militias, the organizations often rely heavily on veterans for training and leadership roles. One prominent group called the Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by a Yale Law School-educated Army veteran, Stewart Rhodes, and is open primarily to first responders and those who have served in the military. Its members swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution but refuse to follow any order that they interpret as deviating from that.
Brian Miller, the leader of the national chapter of another group, the Three Percenters Club, said that veterans head “35 to 40″ of their 45 state chapters.
“They’re a valuable asset without a doubt because of the training they’ve had,” Miller said.
In Oregon, Ritzheimer and a couple of his colleagues posted another video last week specifically calling for all “patriots, constitutionalists, militias and good Americans who believe in the Constitution” to join a “patriot convoy” in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father-son duo convicted of arson on public land. That event led to the occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge beginning Saturday, with organizers saying they were ready to stay for years.
But a number of other militias led by veterans say they don’t approve of the Oregon group’s methods.
Rhodes, who served in the Army for three years in the 1980s before a parachuting accident, said ahead of the rally in Oregon that the protest should not turn into an armed conflict because the Hammonds did not want it. Ritzheimer joined his organization last year but was thrown out a few months later after announcing that he was going to arrest members of Congress for supporting the Iran nuclear deal and a “bunch of other crazy crap,” Rhodes said in a phone interview.
Ritzheimer gained notoriety last year before joining the Oath Keepers for holding a controversial contest in Phoenix to draw the prophet Muhammad, prompting concerns from some Oath Keepers leaders when he expressed interest in joining. He was allowed to join anyway after a discussion, but he was eventually turned away, Rhodes said.
“What Jon Ritzheimer is, is somebody who is trying to piggyback on other groups to expand his audience,” said Rhodes. “He doesn’t adhere to anybody’s standards. He just wants to use it as a platform.”
Rhodes added that those involved now in Oregon are “loose cannon clowns” and not acting with any known group. They are led by Ammon Bundy, a rancher whose family has worked with militias in the past to confront the federal government.
In another example, a group calling itself the Three Percenters Club Oregon issued a news release saying that it opposes the occupation and was concerned that it could put other militia groups at risk of increased scrutiny from the media and the government.
The seizure of Malheur is the most recent incident in a string of confrontations between the federal government and armed groups supposedly fighting for the rights of private citizens. Most notably, representatives from the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters were both present in August 2014 during an armed standoff that stemmed from Bundy’s father, Cliven, refusing to pay federally required grazing fees to have his cattle use public land around his ranch in Bunkerville, Nev.
The standoff included the formation of a “personal security detachment,” a military term used to describe a team assigned to protect a key leader. Barbeau, now facing a federal weapons charge, was part of the detachment protecting Cliven Bundy, according to social media posts from Three Percenter members. Barbeau had left the Marines five years earlier after serving as a combat engineer, deploying on Navy ships but never to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to service records released to The Washington Post.
These confrontations evoke memories of shootouts in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and Waco, Tex., the following year. Those incidents prompted an expansion of anti-government militias, according to numerous federal reports. They also inspired the 1995 bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City, in which Timothy McVeigh, a former enlisted Army soldier and Gulf War veteran, detonated a truck bomb and killed 168 people.
The attack by McVeigh stemmed the growth of the movement for several years, but it expanded again in 2009, after the election of President Obama and fears that he would take away gun rights and expand the federal government, according to a 2013 congressional research report. Others joined because they were worried about what they called a totalitarian “New World Order” government spanning the Earth.
The connection between veterans and anti-government militia groups has long been a sensitive subject.
A leaked 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security said that extremist right-wing organizations were likely to recruit “disgruntled military veterans.” The report argued that the rise of the Internet had made it easier to seek out veterans for their military training.
“These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists — including lone wolves or small terrorist cells — to carry out violence,” the report. “The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.”
The report spawned a significant backlash from veterans. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano eventually apologized for the assessment after outrage spread online and on talk radio. But the report was not retracted. The FBI has not singled out “disgruntled veterans” in the same way, but it noted in a 2011 assessment that “militia extremists” typically organize in similar fashion to the military.
“What sets them apart is that they’re often organized into paramilitary groups that follow a military-style rank hierarchy,” the FBI’s report said. “They tend to stockpile illegal weapons and ammunition, trying illegally to get their hands on fully automatic firearms or attempting to convert weapons to fully automatic. They also try to buy or manufacture improvised explosive devices and typically engage in wilderness, survival, or other paramilitary training.”
Among veterans and service members, there is an ongoing debate about how the standoff in Oregon should be characterized. Some see it as domestic terrorism, even though no shots have been fired.
Clay Currier, who left the Army as a captain in March 2014, said the armed occupiers in Oregon are “absolutely domestic terrorists, through and through.” He compared them to insurgent groups he has seen overseas who consider what option will be most popular with outside observers before acting.
“I believe people like this deserve no second thought,” Currier said. “Send in counterterrorism teams of any type to take them out. Insurgency operations are long, drawn-out wars that really don’t show anyone winning in the end. These terrorists need to be taken out with quick and extreme prejudice. If not, then we will see many more of these types of actions across the nation.”
Others think the Oregon group’s cause is just but that their tactics are all wrong. Those in Malheur have set up in the wrong location, an indefensible plot of land that makes no sense militarily, said Lance Bailey, a former Army specialist who left the service in the early 1990s after serving combat deployments in Panama and Iraq during Desert Storm. Bailey is currently in charge of 30-man militia made up predominately of combat veterans in Tennessee called the Middle Tennessee Constitutional Militia.
“It’s all emotions; there’s no tactics or strategy to it at all,” Bailey said. “They made their stand in the wrong place, and they made their stand in the wrong way.”
Others have a problem with the Oregon group but draw a distinction between the actions there and the earlier standoff in Nevada, in which Cliven Bundy welcomed the support.
Courtney, a Marine combat veteran who would only be identified by his first name, spent days alongside Bundy in 2014 as an Oath Keeper but now views what’s happening in Malheur as somewhat juvenile.
In 2014 “the story that was going around was that the government was picking on the little guy, so I went,” Courtney said. “Since then [Malheur] has grown into something ridiculous, into something like a family feud.”
Courtney, who left the Marines in 2011, was attracted to the Oath Keepers as a form of service after his contract with the military ended, he said, adding that a distant relative of his fought with the North Carolina militias during the revolution.
“Duty for me is a big deal,” he said.
The draw for some veterans joining an anti-government group that advertises camaraderie and purpose can be obvious: It feels like a return to service in a country where adjusting to civilian life can be a struggle.
Former Marine Sgt. Greg Jacobs, while in no way affiliated with any militias, has watched from a distance as some members of his old unit flirted with idea of joining the Oath Keepers. He said that after leaving the service, the appeal to join “a community with a purpose” would seem enticing for some service members. But he added that he had misgivings about the occupation in Oregon.
“In my mind, there are so many more productive avenues to address this specific grievance,” Jacobs said. “What they’re doing seems dumb, hostile, and reactionary.”
Army Capt. Jeff Soltz, an active-duty officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, said he found the Oath Keeper movement and the 2014 standoff in Nevada interesting enough to do a lengthy research project on it while working on his master’s degree. But he added that the group’s beliefs “probably do not represent anything close” to mainstream points of view in the military.
“I know they don’t represent mine,” he said. “The military tends to be rather conservative, but I would suspect in my viewpoint that they would be even on the fringe of the military.”