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‘The country needs you’: Enlisting veterans to fight extremism

Kristofer Goldsmith’s discharge from the Army following a suicide attempt in 2007 sent him spiraling into anger and alienation. The Iraq War veteran, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, reentered civilian life bereft of purpose. He found refuge online, where political antagonism and anti-government conspiracy theories gave shape to an alternate reality.

“I became a pretty hardcore libertarian and almost a 9/11 truther,” he recalls. “It was a self-destructive time.”

Mr. Goldsmith regained his equilibrium with the aid of therapists at the Department of Veterans Affairs and later enrolled in college as he discovered a new life path as an activist. The former sergeant founded High Ground Veterans Advocacy in 2016, and since has earned a national reputation for exposing online disinformation that targets former service members.

In 2019, appearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, he detailed the findings of a two-year investigation he conducted for Vietnam Veterans of America. He unearthed hundreds of fake accounts for veterans and veterans groups on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that promoted extremist content through caustic memes and bogus news articles, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers.

Mr. Goldsmith, who traced many of the pages to operatives in Russia, Nigeria, and other countries, warned lawmakers that failing to protect veterans from online manipulation could further inflame the country’s political tensions.

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He waited a year for the government to act. Finally, days before the November election, federal officials launched a public awareness campaign to educate veterans about the problem.

Two months later, after supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, details emerged that more than two dozen veterans face charges for their role in the riot. One member of the mob, an Air Force veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was among five people who died that day.

The news elicited frustration more than surprise from Mr. Goldsmith. “Nobody can say they didn’t see this coming,” he says.

The Capitol siege has intensified concerns about current and former service members participating in far-right militias and white supremacist groups. In response, the military has pledged to reexamine its recruiting and retention practices, and veterans advocates are imploring those who once wore the uniform to confront extremism in America.

“As a veteran, you have credibility to use,” says Chris Purdy, the project manager of Veterans for American Ideals, a nonpartisan advocacy program run by Human Rights First. “If you’re not going to use it, you have to know the consequences for the country.”

Pentagon officials have vowed to increase policing of white nationalism in the armed forces, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered an operational pause across the military within the next 60 days to address the crisis. National veterans organizations condemned the Capitol attack, and at least two – Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS – intend to expel members found guilty of illegal acts or violence.

Mr. Goldsmith and other advocates seek to prevent more former service members from succumbing to extremist ideology by appealing to their sense of honor. He envisions building an “army of veterans” who, in effect, enlist again to preserve democracy, joining the fight against right-wing radicalism online and offline.

“This is an opportunity for you to play your part and serve in a meaningful way,” he says. “The country needs you.”

Calling out extremism

Experts in extremism point out that only a fraction of America’s 20 million veterans belong to supremacist groups. At the same time, by some estimates, a quarter or more of the country’s roughly 20,000 militia members spent time in the military.

More veterans began gravitating to white nationalist and anti-government groups in the early post-Vietnam era, angered by a cold reception at home and what they perceived as the military’s betrayal of troops. Their numbers grew during the 1990s when Democrats tightened federal gun laws, and spiked again during the Obama administration in reaction to the country electing its first Black president.

Far-right activism – with the involvement of veterans – surged higher under Mr. Trump. He galvanized the movement with his refusal to vigorously condemn white supremacy and his embrace of QAnon and other “deep state” conspiracies. In the weeks before the Capitol siege, he fomented supporters with baseless claims of election fraud, House impeachment managers argued during his Senate trial Wednesday.

The stature of veterans in American culture, coupled with their tactical expertise and leadership and survival skills, make them prized recruits for paramilitary and supremacist groups. Several right-wing militias focus on attracting former military and law enforcement personnel, as much for the aura of legitimacy they lend the cause as for their ability to influence the views of family members and friends.

One of the most prominent militias, Oath Keepers, was founded by a former Army paratrooper in 2009. Federal authorities have charged three veterans linked to the militia in connection with the attack on Congress.

The allure of nationalist groups for veterans relates to a sense of purpose and kinship reminiscent of the military, explains retired Army Col. Carl Castro, who deployed twice to Iraq. An associate professor at the University of Southern California, he studies what draws veterans to far-right extremism. Other common reasons include lingering frustration over their treatment in the service, disillusionment with civilian life, and the struggle to find meaningful work.

“These groups say, ‘Join us and you’ll be a leader.’ That can be attractive for those who think their skills and experience are being undervalued,” he says.

The Military Times reported last year that more than a third of active-duty troops had witnessed examples of white nationalism or racism within the military. At least four current service members have been charged for participating in the Capitol insurrection.

Mr. Castro’s research, funded by the National Institute of Justice, will attempt to identify risk factors for extremist tendencies. The data could enable the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to detect and avert an individual’s descent into radicalization. 

“Leaders need to do better about calling that stuff out, and troops need to treat one another better,” he says. “And then that needs to carry over after they’ve left the military.”

Congress held hearings last February on white supremacy in the armed services. Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, testified that Pentagon officials and unit commanders have failed to track, report, and crack down on extremist behavior.

Ms. Beirich suggests that the military screen the social media accounts of recruits for far-right content and review the posts of service members on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms as part of security clearance background checks. She adds that last month’s riot illustrated with brutal clarity the importance of creating programs to deradicalize adherents.

“There’s no intervention process in the military or for civilians to stop extremism,” she says. “That has to change.”

In the near term, the Pentagon’s inspector general plans to review the military’s enforcement of policies that bar service members from joining far-right groups. Federal lawmakers will weigh legislation to enhance measures to screen for and root out white supremacists in the ranks, and President Joe Biden has ordered a national assessment of domestic terrorism.

“It’s long overdue,” Ms. Beirich says. “We may finally have an administration taking this problem seriously.”

A unique voice

A 2009 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security warned of growing efforts by nationalist and supremacist groups to recruit Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Republican lawmakers, veterans organizations, and conservative media charged that the report perpetuated the “disgruntled vet” stereotype, and the backlash blunted federal scrutiny and public discussion of homegrown terrorism.

Veterans advocates consider the presence of former service members in the Capitol mob as stark evidence of the report’s prescience – and the need for more veterans to counter the radical right ethos.

“We served for the ideals of freedom and democracy, and that’s not what this populist movement stands for,” says Pam Campos-Palma, a political strategist with Vets for the People, a progressive advocacy group.

The former Air Force intelligence analyst, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, contends that veterans who engage in violent extremism should lose their VA benefits and other privileges. Those charged in the Jan. 6 uprising could face that punishment if they wind up court-martialed.

“Rioting at the Capitol in the name of white supremacy and racism, attempting to overturn the results of an election – that’s the exact opposite of serving your country,” she says.

Mr. Purdy, with Veterans for American Ideals, recognizes that those who devoted years of their lives to the military might feel others should bear the burden of deterring domestic extremism.

“After 20 years of continuous war, the veterans community is exhausted,” he says. “They’ve done their duty.”

Yet Mr. Purdy, a former sergeant in the Army National Guard who deployed to Iraq, has observed the eagerness of veterans across the political spectrum to preserve democratic principles and practices. His group recruited 1,000 former service members to serve as poll workers on Election Day in Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The call for volunteers lured Trump and Biden supporters alike, united by a desire to ensure the election’s integrity. He found reason for optimism in their ideological diversity.

“We’re not going to force anyone to get involved in fighting back against white extremism,” he says. “But veterans have to be aware that their voice is being co-opted and used by these groups to harm democracy. So it’s essential that those who don’t want to see that happen speak out, because the veteran’s voice is unique.”

The revered status of veterans, while giving weight to their words and actions, can hinder their reintegration into post-military life. Commanders condition them to regard their service as a form of exceptionalism, instilling a sense of “otherness” that leads some to withdraw after returning home, a symptom of the so-called military-civilian divide.

Right-wing militias and supremacist groups seek to exploit that estrangement from wider society, offering veterans a chance to join a like-minded tribe pursuing a mission to “protect” the country. Mr. Castro urges veterans to instead find renewed purpose in advocating for common dignity, to reconnect with their communities and approach their return to the civilian world with humility.

“Military service members and veterans don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist within American culture,” he says. “You can’t place yourself above or apart from civilians. We’re all citizens.”

Signing up once more

Mr. Goldsmith’s research into online disinformation draws a link between rising rancor among veterans and social media campaigns that spread misleading and false reports on veterans issues and U.S. politics. President Biden’s willingness to denounce far-right radicalism gives him a degree of confidence that federal officials will take up his recommendations to shield troops and veterans from the flow of deceptions and distortions. 

Beyond potential government action, Mr. Goldsmith suggests that veterans groups and the VA marshal a volunteer network of former service members to act as cybersecurity sleuths. The online army could monitor and flag suspicious accounts, coordinating with social media companies, intelligence agencies, and veterans organizations to inhibit conspiracy theories that corrupt notions of patriotism.

“What we’ve seen is the gamification of disinformation,” he says. “So we have to get into the same mindset if we’re going to disrupt and counter these fake accounts and the damage they’re doing.”

Welton Chang imagines a similar strategy for thwarting social media malefactors. The chief technology officer for Human Rights First, he has developed online tools to track extremist content and propaganda. He wants to enhance the ability of veterans groups and other organizations to expose fake accounts that inundate troops and former service members with far-right, racist, and anti-government tropes.

“There has to be consequences for people doing this kind of thing because we’re tearing ourselves apart,” says Mr. Chang, a former Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq. He asserts that the Biden administration must rein in online platforms to slow the advance of extremism.

“There’s got to be government action,” he says. “It’s the only entity that can go one-on-one with the social media companies.”

A few members of his old unit bared extremist attitudes online during Mr. Trump’s time in office, posting comments, memes, and articles on Facebook that scorned immigrants and racial equality. He broke off contact with them. They seemed oblivious or unmoved that Mr. Chang – who as a boy emigrated with his parents from Taiwan to America – would view the content as offensive.

The corrosion of veteran solidarity that social media has magnified in recent years mirrors the larger loss of public civility across the culture. After the dystopian spectacle of Jan. 6, Mr. Chang holds hope that more veterans will sign up once more to defend the country – this time from a threat within.

“There’s a pedestal phenomenon in America with veterans,” he says. “Society has gone way overboard in ascribing us some kind of special moral stature because of our service. But the other part of that is, it gives us the opportunity to make a difference.”

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