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Veterans in Violent, Extremist Groups Prompt Response Plan from Congress

October 13, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Police disperse Jan. 6 rioters. (Photo by Tom Ramstack)

WASHINGTON — Fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol continued Wednesday as a congressional panel looked at why veterans would become violent against the country they swore to protect.

Representatives of veterans groups and academics blamed mental health problems, underemployment, racism and disenchantment with the government for why veterans might join violent extremist groups.

Nearly all of them expressed surprise to find that veterans could be counted among extremists like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters.

“It’s very disheartening for me,” said Joe Plenzler, a U.S. Marine Corps retired lieutenant colonel.

Their surprise was heightened when 66 veterans were arrested at the Capitol on Jan. 6. One was shot and killed by a police officer.

Plenzler and other witnesses before the House Veterans Affairs Committee reminded the lawmakers that the menace goes beyond Jan. 6. A recent FBI report said domestic terrorism is now one of the top threats to U.S. democracy.

“First, we must better understand the problem,” said Plenzler.

He added that he supports a proposal for a government study to determine how veterans are being recruited to extremist groups.

A bill pending in the House, the Veterans’ Cyber Risk Awareness Act, would order the Veterans Administration to study the vulnerability of veterans to being recruited by extremists, such as through internet-based disinformation.

It also would require an outreach campaign by the VA to identify veterans most likely to be recruited by extremists and to educate them about the dangers.

Plenzler said that in many cases, the government has waited too long to take action.

“The data is undeniable,” he said.

It shows an outsized participation by the nation’s 18 million veterans in extremist groups, he said.

Typically they are recruited during their time of greatest vulnerability while they transition from the military to civilian life, Plenzler said. Extremists value them for their military training, their leadership and their knowledge of weapons.

Historically, radical violent veterans have included Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy; Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995; and Eric Rudolph, who set off a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

“They can be extremely dangerous,” Plenzler said about veterans who use their military training for domestic attacks.

A June 2020 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that far-right attackers could be blamed for most domestic terrorism incidents in the previous 25 years. The trend was accelerating with far-right extremists committing 66% of the attacks and plots in 2019 and 90% in 2020. 

From 2016 to 2018, the FBI reported arresting 355 domestic terrorism suspects. Most of them were motivated by racist or anti-government ideology.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., cautioned against blaming one ideology or a single group, such as White racists, for extremism.

“Violent extremism exists on both ends of the political spectrum,” Takano said.

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said any clampdown on extremists should avoid infringing on First Amendment rights to free speech.

“Free speech is a foundation to democracy and the American way of life,” Bost said.

He added that most veterans were law-abiding, productive members of society who should not be stigmatized as violent or extremist.

“We cannot let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch,” he said.

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