'Patriot' militias appeal to some frustrated vets

By Hal Bernton | The Seattle Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 5, 2016

Staff Sgt. Maureen Peltier is a Washington National Guard soldier from Bonney Lake, Pierce County in Washington state, whose sense of duty to her country carried her through two deployments in Iraq.

Now, as Peltier prepares to retire due to disability, she believes she is serving her country in a different way — by supporting anti-government militants who have seized several buildings at a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon.

Peltier visited the armed protesters at the remote refuge about 30 miles south of Burns, Ore., over the weekend and is promoting the "patriot" movement with Facebook posts calling for others to help the cause.

Peltier, 42, is part of a subset of the movement: veterans who may live far from the federal grazing lands that have been the source of conflict around the West but nonetheless have joined the protests against the government.

The ongoing occupation now attracting national attention centers on the government's treatment of two ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond, who were imprisoned Monday for torching federal land adjacent to their ranch.

Federal agents say the two set a series of fires that put people and property at risk, while supporters say they were the victims of overzealous prosecutors.

"When we find the cause is just, I would say that there are a rising number of veterans who are speaking out more and more now," Peltier said. "We do believe in government. We don't believe in corrupt government."

For some of these veterans, frustrations with superiors in the military helped foster a mistrust for government; other veterans who have struggled once they left the service are drawn to pitches from militia groups.

Veterans on scene in eastern Oregon include Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine from Phoenix who earlier this year gained attention for anti-Muslim statements. From Oregon, he posted a lengthy video online in which he chokes back tears as he declares his love for his family, explains why the Hammonds' plight compelled him to travel to Oregon, and states that "I wanna die a free man."

Another protester is Montana Army veteran Ryan Payne, who was present at a 2014 standoff between federal agents and militant rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada over his failure to pay grazing fees.

In a Missoula Independent newspaper story that profiled his transition from wartime soldier to patriot-movement stalwart, Payne talked about how his wartime experiences helped convince him that the United States "was pushing oppression upon a lot of the world."

In that article he's quoted as saying that protesters during the Nevada standoff had their weapons trained on Bureau of Land Management agents, and if they "made one wrong move," those agents would have died.

The sons of Cliven Bundy helped lead the Oregon refuge takeover Saturday. They were part of a splinter group that broke off following a peaceful protest in Burns against an appeals-court ruling lengthening the Hammonds' prison sentences to five years each. Those prison terms resulted from a Justice Department appeal of earlier, more lenient sentences.

Peltier said she did not support the decision to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge buildings. But once it happened, she said, she felt that she could not leave those involved to "just hang on."

She said she met twice with leaders of the takeover — once Saturday at the entrance to the refuge headquarters, and a second time Sunday in Burns, where some of the protesters gathered for a visit. She's now back home at Bonney Lake.

The patriot movement has been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which on Monday said it had identified 276 militia groups in 2015, a 37 percent increase from 2014. Heidi Beirich, who leads the center's intelligence project, said some militia groups target veterans, as well as former law-enforcement officers, as recruits.

"They make up a reasonable contingent of support of the anti-government movement," Beirich said.

One case that has attracted supporters from the patriot movement involves a Stanwood veteran who is awaiting federal trial on weapons charges.

Schuyler Barbeau, a former Marine and Washington National Guard soldier, was indicted in December for possession of an assault rifle equipped with an illegal short barrel.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in the case, he has threatened public officials and told a confidential informant that he stole blasting caps and detonation cord from his Army National Guard unit. That affidavit was filed by an agent who said he was part of the domestic squad of a Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Peltier believes Barbeau is a victim of overreach by prosecutors. While in Oregon over the weekend, she said, she talked about Barbeau's case with patriot supporters. And in a post on her Facebook page, she urged everyone to "get ready" to come to Seattle for his February trial.

"I have been working on rallying support for him, and the interest is certainly there," Peltier said in an interview Monday. " He hasn't had national coverage yet, but my tentacles are reaching out more and more every day."

Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department, which includes the Guard, said Barbeau served from 2010 to August of 2014. She said the National Guard had been contacted by federal officials about missing blasting caps and detonation cord. But she said "nothing that I have seen (indicates) that there is an actual theft."

Noting that Peltier has not yet retired from the Guard, Shagreen said that Peltier's Facebook postings have caught the attention of the Guard, but declined further comment.

Peltier, who is originally from San Jose, Calif., says she has spent 15 years in the Washington Guard, with an initial deployment early in the Iraq war with the Guard's 1161st Transportation Company in 2003 and a second deployment in 2008 assigned to the 81st Brigade Combat Team.

In the military, Peltier says, she has been frustrated by toxic leadership, adding that she sometimes triggered retaliation when she identified problems and brought them to the chain of command.

Over the years, Peltier says, she has become a supporter of the patriot movement. But only recently, as she's gone through medical retirement for a knee injury and cognitive disorders, has she felt free to speak openly.

"I used to keep quiet because I didn't want to get into trouble," Peltier said. "But we need to get educated as a country and a community. So I stopped fearing speaking out."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com
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