When Chris Buckley left the Army National Guard, he was angry.
He was angry that the world didn’t seem to understand what he’d been through, angry at the training accident in Kentucky that had left him with a broken back and near constant pain. He was particularly angry at the men on the other side of the world who had killed his best friend, Daniel, when they served together in Afghanistan. It seemed like all he did was struggle—with his family life, with an opioid addiction that stemmed from his back problems, with what his purpose should be now that he was a civilian.
“If you can name it, I was fighting the demon,” Buckley says.
So when he connected on Facebook with a Navy veteran who seemed to understand what he was going through, he felt intrigued. The Facebook group page they had met on was full of posts Buckley related to—about America, and patriotism, and Christianity. He noticed a lot of other veterans were active in the group.
But he didn’t know the group was part of a larger community, until one day, his Navy friend asked if Buckley realized whom he’d been chatting with.
“I was like, ‘I have no idea, bro,’” Buckley says. “He was like, ‘This is the Ku Klux Klan.’”
Buckley was unfazed. The group spoke to a lot of his interests. He liked the distinct “pro-America, pro-Constitution” vibe. But he liked the rage, too.
His anger and grief over his friend Daniel’s death had ballooned into a hatred of Muslims, and he felt similar fury toward gay people that followed from a childhood molestation, he says.
He realized, as he began to meet members of the group offline, that his military background served him well.
“I’d been to combat,” Buckley says. “I knew how to shoot, move, and communicate, lead a team through combat exercises and scenarios, train them to use their rifles, train them to use their pistols, live-fire exercises. And that’s what we were doing.”
Since the attack on the U.S. Capitol a year and a half ago, where some 15% of the rioters had a military background, the military and veteran community has grappled with the problem of far-right extremism within its ranks. Just this month, the Justice Department indicted five members of the Proud Boys on charges of sedition stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection. Four of them were veterans, including one who had been awarded a Purple Heart. Determining actual numbers is difficult, though it appears to be small. But veterans’ presence can bring a perception of credibility to these groups—particularly militia groups, where their numbers are larger.
Since at least the Vietnam war, the loss of support and identity that many veterans feel when they leave the military, combined with the effects of trauma and sometimes a feeling of being abandoned by their country, have left some veterans vulnerable to extremism, experts say. While in recent years, the military and veterans groups have been more willing to confront this problem than in the past, extremist groups know about and capitalize on this vulnerability.
“They recognize that veterans are looking for something,” says Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University who studies militias. “It’s an easy way for them to grow their ranks.”
“It’s going to take a lot to slow down the momentum”
In 2009, a Department of Homeland Security analyst named Daryl Johnson wrote an internal report highlighting the growing number of military veterans involved in far-right extremism.
The problem wasn’t new—as historian Kathleen Belew details in her book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, early manifestations of today’s alt-right movement can be traced, in part, to a small number of disgruntled Vietnam veterans who felt abandoned by the United States and turned to white supremacy. In the 1970s, the KKK openly operated at Camp Pendleton. Randy Weaver, who was at the center of the Ruby Ridge standoff with the federal government in 1992, was a Vietnam War-era Army veteran. Timothy McVeigh met Terry Nichols, who helped him plan the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in the Army.
But after the election of President Barack Obama, Johnson saw more activity in far-right and white supremacist groups than he had in years. He noticed these groups specifically prioritized recruiting military veterans, in large part to capitalize on the skills they had gained during their time on active duty.
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At first, he got a lot of positive feedback on the report from within the department, he says. But then it leaked to the press. The public backlash centered on Johnson’s comments about “disgruntled military veterans” who might be vulnerable to recruiting efforts—commentators said the memo denigrated veterans and disrespected their service to the country. Ultimately, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano apologized for the report. But the problem Johnson highlighted didn’t disappear.
“It’s incubated now for 12, 14 years,” Johnson says. “It’s going to take a lot to slow down the momentum that’s built up over that time.”
In part because of this fear of disrespecting the military, data about the scope of the problem among active-duty service members and veterans is sparse.
“This is a terribly nontransparent problem that we’re dealing with,” says Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University who has studied extremism for more than two decades.
The data that does exist suggests the problem is growing. Statistics from the Center for Strategic & International Studies show that 6.4% of all domestic terror plots and attacks in the United States in 2020 were committed by active-duty or reserve service members—a tiny percentage, but up from 1.5% in 2019. A 2019 poll by Military Times found that more than 1 in 3 troops surveyed reported seeing direct evidence of white nationalism within the military. That’s also up, from 1 in 4 in 2017.
Among those who have left the military, the data is even less clear. While the total number of veterans who join extremist groups is still very small, they play an outsize role in these groups, particularly in militia-style organizations. Amy Cooter and other experts have found that, very roughly, 30 to 40% of militia members have military experience.
“It’s not a couple people,” Simi says. “People don’t want to disrespect the military. … But you still have to talk about a problem, and it’s going [to] get a little uncomfortable.”
“Veterans give them a degree of legitimacy”
When Chris Buckley joined the KKK in 2014, its days of cross burning were retreating into the past, he says.
“They’re doing away with the ‘let’s protest in public with pointy hats and robes,’” Buckley says. “The KKK is shifting towards a more militia-style environment.”
A report on radicalization within the military community from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that, among extremists with military backgrounds who had committed criminal acts, nearly half belonged to organized militias or embraced anti-government views.
Militia-style groups, which are often oriented around the Second Amendment and a defensive, or even oppositional, stance toward the government, particularly prize members with military experience.
“It comes down to two basic things,” Simi says. “One is skills and training, leadership, munitions training, explosives, all that stuff. And then two is status.”
Groups that worry about or are preparing for some sort of confrontation with the government value the experiences military veterans have, from leading teams to weapons training to combat experience. In fact, on Jan. 6, members of the Oath Keepers used infantry tactics to help them gain access to the Capitol building.
And as Simi and other experts point out, having veterans in the ranks can boost the credibility of an extremist group. Military veterans are among the most respected groups in American society.
“Veterans give them a degree of legitimacy,” Cooter says. “It makes them look like they’re trained and makes them look like they’re really being patriotic.”
“I needed a mission”
In 2015, Chris Buckley’s wife gave him an ultimatum: He could have drugs and the KKK. Or he could have her and their son. He couldn’t have both.
With the help of a former extremist, Buckley left the KKK. Today, he works with Parents for Peace, an organization dedicated to supporting families and friends trying to help loved ones leave extremist groups. He points to his experience in the months and years after he left the Army National Guard as an example of why a disproportionate number of veterans are vulnerable to extremist recruitment efforts.
“I would rival KKK recruiters to that of any military recruiter I ever talked to,” Buckley says, noting they are good at telling potential members exactly what they want to hear.
The disorientation many veterans feel when they leave the military can be profound. A loss of a mission, a community, even a sense of self can lead people to search for meaning and camaraderie elsewhere.
“I was looking for something to be a part of something,” Buckley says. “I needed a mission.”
On top of that, Buckley says he struggled with PTS. Many veterans have experienced some form of trauma during their service, and asking for help is often still stigmatized.
“Some of the more traditional venues that could be provided through the VA or other kinds of official military associations are seen as soft, in a way that kind of undermines the very notion of masculinity that the military relies on,” Cooter says.
Experiencing trauma has been linked to an increased potential for radicalization. Trauma can heighten negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness, which are common in far-right and racist organizations, Simi says.
“‘Your race is on the verge of extinction,’ ‘Your country is being taken from you,’ ‘Your culture is being lost,’” he says. “It’s a very depressive ideology. It’s a very angry ideology.”
The military needs to take a more proactive approach to help service members guard against the possibility of radicalization, Buckley says. In the same way the military prepares troops to deploy overseas, he says, it should better prepare them for the minefields that can await them when they come home from combat or leave active duty.
“When you go overseas, you spend three, three and a half, four, five, six months at a mob site,” he says, referring to mobilization and demobilization in the National Guard and reserves. “When you come home, it takes two weeks to get the entire battalion through demob.”
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Extending a unit’s recovery—or even simply using some of that time to address the threat of radicalization—would go a long way, he says.
“Those evenings, where they’re sitting around pounding beers waiting to go home, they could do a two-hour class twice a week,” he says, adding that they could perhaps even hear from people like him, who were radicalized, and who have come out the other side. “I can tell them what happened. I can explain to them how easy it was to happen.”
This War Horse investigation was reported by Sonner Kehrt, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.