Policymakers say addressing extremism among veterans is a 'delicate' challenge
While still a small percentage of the total veteran population, the number of veterans committing extremist violence has risen sharply, according to a Congressional report.
Two years after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, government leaders are still struggling with how to speak about military veterans who are involved with violent extremism.
The number of veterans linked to extremism has been rising, though it's still a tiny percentage of the veteran community. According to the George Washington University Program on Extremism, 107 veterans have been charged with crimes in connection with the Capitol attack as of Dec. 30, 2022. That represents more than 11 percent of the total defendants.
About 7 percent of U.S. adults are veterans.
In the Congressional session that ended in December, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs looked at extremism and white supremacy among veterans. At times, the hearings themselves highlighted how difficult the conversation remains, as some members lashed out at the premise.
“I think this hearing is offensive," said Indiana Republican Jim Banks. "The fact that you’re going to save our veterans from being political terrorists is offensive to every veteran in America."
Committee chair Mark Takano, a California Democrat, stressed that only a small number of former service members are involved with extremism, but he defended the committee's work.
“We need to be able to raise this issue without being subject to the claim that we're trying to paint all veterans or characterize all veterans as extremists," Takano said.
The committee called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to work more closely with the Department of Defense to curb extremism among veterans. But Takano concedes that will be a challenge.
“It's a very delicate place that VA has to be in," he said. "They're the federal government. If it looks like they're trying to intrude into the realm of the veterans' beliefs or trying to change veteran's beliefs, that's not going to work."
In addition to some policymakers' reluctance to discuss the issue, analysts named several other factors that inhibit efforts to address extremism among former service members.
In the November issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research, researchers pointed to the lack of a consistent definition for extremism. They found the White House, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense each have their own definitions.
“Not every extremist is a terrorist, and believing in extremist ideologies does not make an individual as terrorists” said Max Erdemandi, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland who was one of the paper’s authors.
Erdemandi said it's also difficult to assess the effectiveness of some government anti-extremism measures, such as the "stand down" ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shortly after the Capitol insurrection. Erdemandi said the stand down - in which commanders were told to talk with troops about extremism - had no firm goals.
“They were just defined in very abstract terms," Erdemandi said. "That is also an issue with a lot of government led extremism and terrorism prevention policies. There are no measures of success, It is very subjective."
Extremism is nothing new in the military, according to Nick Mararac, another of the paper's authors. Asian American and gay, Mararac graduated from the Naval Academy in 2007. He recalled an incident on one of his first ships.
“Someone pulled a knife on me," he said. "They were sharpening their knife in front of me, as if to intimidate me."
Mararac is now a linguist who studies the language used by the military and veteran community around extremism. The Department of Defense has said in reports that the problem is rare, but Marac says the Pentagon may not have enough data to make that assertion.
“I’m not really sure that squares with my experience in the military,” he said. “And I would argue that perhaps that some of these folks that are coming into the military already ascribe to these ideological views. It’s not like they come in and the military fosters this culture.”
Other veterans don't fall prey to extremism until after they leave the service. The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs found that groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters actively recruit veterans. It cited a "mutual attraction" between disaffected veterans seeking camaraderie and extremist groups seeking members with weapons and tactical skills.
Advocates said the military could do more to help former troops resist those appeals.
Akilah Templeton is president and CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego, which assists veterans experiencing homelessness and problems with substance abuse.
“That transition - coming out of the military and entering back into society - it’s really hard," said Akilah Templeton of Veterans Village of San Diego, which assists veterans experiencing homelessness and substance abuse. "So when a person is unable to make a smooth transition, they’re more susceptible to these types of things."
She said veterans are pulled into violent extremism for the same reason that they can fall into substance abuse - job loss, family issues, isolation, military trauma, combined with a loss of purpose. And she said groups like hers are not receiving much guidance from the VA on ways to tackle the issue.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.