Posted on April 26, 2021

Post-Riot Effort to Tackle Extremism in the Military Largely Overlooks Veterans

Paul Sonne et al., Washington Post, April 20, 2021

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.

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.


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. {snip}

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.”


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.

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. {snip}


“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.”