Early intervention and better mental health care are keys in preventing veterans from joining extremist groups, advocates say
Stars and Stripes April 1, 2022
WASHINGTON – Early intervention with veterans is crucial in preventing them from joining violent extremists groups, veterans and advocates said Thursday during a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“Prevention of radicalization is always better than treatment,” said Chris Buckley, an Army veteran and former Ku Klux Klan member. “We need to prepare our troops not only for being soldiers but also for the civilian life. We need preventive solutions to help our soldiers deal with the trauma of active duty in healthier ways.”
Some of the methods offered during the hearing for helping veterans avoid such groups included improved screening of violent extremist beliefs in the military, increased civic engagement among veterans, and provide resources and support for veterans wanting to leave extremist groups.
Joe Chenelly, national executive director of American Veterans, said veterans do well when they have a positive group of fellow veterans in their lives.
“Since at least the Civil War, veterans have joined and organized groups that generally look to serve their fellow veterans and their communities,” he said. “In some ways, veterans are changing how they join groups, and there are often more options available that focus on specific interests.”
The hearing is the second in a series that looks into domestic violent extremists and their efforts to target veterans for recruitment into their groups. A week before the hearing, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, released a staff report entitled, "Report On Domestic Violent Extremist Groups And The Recruitment Of Veterans” that focused on the key findings presented by expert witnesses from the first hearing held last October.
“Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years,” according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The think tank also reported 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the U.S. in 2020 were connected to far-right actors, which included anti-government and white supremacist groups. Whereas left-wing extremists were responsible for one-quarter of domestic terrorist plots or attacks since 1994.
The CSIS report also stated there was scant evidence on whether left-wing extremists prioritize veteran recruitment. However, the case was the opposite for far-right extremists. Moreover, the report revealed experts in domestic terrorism and law enforcement have estimated 15,000 to 20,000 individuals with military backgrounds associated with 300 right-wring militias in 2020. Those members made up at least 25% of the groups' membership.
The House VA Committee’s first hearing on domestic extremist groups came 10 months after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump as Congress attempted to certify the election results of President Joe Biden’s November 2020 victory. The mob included members of several right-wing and anti-government groups, including the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, the Justice Department has said.
Among the more than 620 individuals who have been arrested and charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack, at least 66 were military-affiliated — veterans, active-duty service members or reservists, lawmakers said at the October hearing.
Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and board member of We the Veterans, a nonprofit group based in Denver, called it “shocking” that veterans, who make up about 6% of the U.S. population, comprised at least 10% of those charged in the assault.
Takano said the initial hearing examined the threat of veteran radicalization and recruitment by domestic violent extremist groups. The committee also learned why violent extremist groups target veterans in their recruitment efforts.
“Some of the reasons for this may seem obvious,” he said. “These groups value the leadership skills, the combat experience, and the weapons training that veterans possess. Having veterans among their ranks also gives these groups an air of credibility and allows them to project a false appearance of patriotism and duty that belies their true anti-government views and racial, ethnic, and religious hatred.”
Takano said Thursday’s hearing was held to understand why a growing number of veterans have been drawn to violent extremism in recent years, as well as what’s being done to address the issue.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said free speech must be protected but violence cannot be tolerated. However, he said Takano was furthering a false and dangerous stigma of veterans being violent and a danger to their communities.
"The chairman is more interested in advancing his own political interest by painting veterans as radical and violent than he is about moving beyond partisanship to figure out the actual help veterans need,” Bost said.
William Braniff, co-founder of We the Veterans, said the organization has found that mental health concerns were more prevalent among veterans who go on to engage in extremist crimes versus others who engage in extremist crimes. While it appears to be a particular risk factor in the veteran community, it’s not the only risk factor, he said.
“Veterans and military families hold a revered station in American culture. Americans recognize the value of their service, especially in the context of an all-volunteer military over the past 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Braniff said. “And beyond that, veterans and military families are highly active in community service and serve to strengthen our social fabric. Americans look to veterans and military families as leaders of character and, often, as arbiters of truth.”
John Horgan, a psychology professor at Georgia State University, said he has studied violent extremism for more than 25 years, though he’s not an expert of veterans affairs. He said he believes his research would help them understand why some veterans become involved in terrorism and what they can do about it.
“We know something valuable about who violent extremist groups want,” Horgan said. “They don’t seek out the ‘misguided,’ the ‘troubled,’ the ‘broken,’ the ‘easily manipulated.’ In certain situations, these groups might take anyone they can get their hands on. The deadlier and more organized terror groups will find a role for everybody. But what they want, what they prize above all else is the recruit who is competent – someone who doesn’t just talk, but is willing to act, and can be counted on to do a job. They want people who are resilient, who can cope with the pressures of facing down an enemy.
Additionally, Horgan said violent extremists groups sought potential recruits willing to risk their lives for something bigger than themselves.
“The perfect terrorist recruit is someone who will take notice, stand up and fight while others look away,” he said. “This might sound strange, but terrorists want people who have the capacity to care about the plight of others. Moral outrage at some gross injustice is one of the common themes we see in radicalization narratives the world over.”
Vidhya Ramalingam, CEO and co-founder of Moonshot, a global-based company focused on monitoring threats, online harms, and counter-messaging campaigns, said her company found a 66% increase of suicide references in conspiracy-theory communities online in November 2020.
Ramalingam said violent extremists take advantage of popular disinformation narratives as well as exploit those expressing mental health needs online to incite violence.
However, she said ongoing efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as the development of digital apps to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs, are the kind of efforts that can be enhanced to reach veterans on online where extremists seek to recruit them.
Buckley spoke about his experience on how he joined the Ku Klux Klan after he left the service.
When Buckley was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, he said what shook him was the loss of his best friend, Daniel Wallace, who died in his arms after he was hit by a bullet under his left eye.
His psychological pain was accompanied by a physical injury when he returned to the United States. Buckley, then a sergeant in the 201st Engineer Battalion of the Kentucky Army National Guard, was on a humanitarian mission when the axle on his Army vehicle broke and he injured his back. While he received workers’ compensation, he was never given a line of duty determination despite still suffering from his injury almost 13 years ago.
A line of duty determination is an administrative means used to determine a soldier’s duty status at the time of an injury, illness, disability, or death, which would have made Buckley eligible for benefits and entitlements.
Buckley was prescribed opioids for the pain and he became addicted. He said he also became resentful toward his “growing list of enemies -- Muslims, gays, Blacks, and Jews.” He also said his trauma unleashed other wounds that he had repressed, such as when he was sexually abused as a child.
Buckley said when he was discharged from the Army he did not receive treatment for his PTSD from the VA. Buckley told the committee about when he was suicidal, he drove six hours from his home in Birmingham, Ala., to the nearest VA facility in the region, which was in Georgia. Buckley took a loaded .38 handgun with him and kept it in the glove compartment of his car, which he left unlocked. He told the front desk at the VA, “If you don’t help me relieve what I’m going through, I’m going to kill myself.”
Buckley said he told the woman at the front desk not to send him home. Two hours later, he was given medication and sent home. No one checked for his gun. Since then, Buckley has never returned to the VA.
After he left the KKK, he sought treatment for his opioid addiction after his wife intervened and sought out Parents for Peace, a nonprofit based in Memphis, Tenn., focused on helping families and friends of those involved in any form of extremism.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., told Buckley that he understood where he came from and where he was going. Gallego is a Marine combat veteran.
“Yours is a hopeful story,” Takano told Buckley.
In his closing remarks, Takano said the witnesses that they helped the committee put into context various factors that place a small but growing number of veterans at risk of radicalization.
“By better understanding these factors that facilitate the radicalization process, we can begin to identify possible solutions to mitigate the threat of domestic violent extremism,” he said.
A follow-up hearing has not been scheduled, according to the House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs.