Report: Veterans with extremist views had bad experiences in military

by Vern Evans

Most veterans recently interviewed by the RAND Corporation about their extreme political views told researchers they had negative and even traumatic experiences while serving in the U.S. military, ranging from combat trauma and sexual abuse to interpersonal conflicts that led to their discharge.

The findings, released in a report Tuesday, add to other evidence that suggests negative experiences in the military could be a risk factor for people becoming radicalized into extremist ideologies, according to Todd Helmus, a co-author on the report. Data compiled last year by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism revealed a pattern of failed military recruits who were later charged with extremist-driven plots and crimes.

“A number of folks in our study had problematic experiences,” Helmus said. “We and other scholars have suggested before that those problematic experiences in the military could lead people to be vulnerable to these groups. So, we think that’s a significant finding.”

Helmus and his co-author, Ryan Brown, aren’t sure on the broader significance of their findings, and they said more studies would need to be done to understand the connection.

To compile the report, Brown and Helmus interviewed 21 veterans who had indicated in a RAND survey last year that they held extremist views. The veterans had either expressed support for specific groups, such as Antifa and the Proud Boys, endorsed political violence, black nationalism or white supremacy or supported conspiracy theories like QAnon or the Great Replacement theory.

Three-quarters of the veterans interviewed were forthcoming about negative life events during their military service, Brown said. One veteran described developing post-traumatic stress disorder after recovering casualties from the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 US service members in 1983, the report states.

Another veteran said he developed a substance-abuse problem while serving and drank because he disliked the routine of the military and being told what to do. Two women veterans described physical, psychological and sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of fellow service members.

Some of the veterans said they faced problems while transitioning into civilian life. They experienced financial issues or severed romantic relationships and others become homeless or were arrested and imprisoned.

“I was surprised how clear the descriptions were of some extremely negative events, and the extent of how negative life experiences compound each other,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of hardship. You start to get a sense for how and why these beliefs develop.”

When asked about how they came to believe in their extreme viewpoints, most of the veterans said they became highly interested in politics after historic events. They cited Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2020 riots following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. Supreme Court decision that settled a recount dispute in Florida’s 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Six of the 21 veterans said they developed their current beliefs while in the military or afterward while working in law enforcement.

“When I got into the military, I started to get into conspiracy theories because of conversations with my peers,” one veteran is quoted as saying. “That’s when I learned about the Illuminati… a bunch of Satanists that run the world. Now I’m a full tin hat.”

Sixteen veterans cited specific news organizations, alternative news sites, political influencers or social media platforms that helped shape their viewpoints, the report states. Those ranged from traditional news outlets such as CNN and Fox News to the right-wing outlet Newsmax and Russia Today, a channel funded by the Russian government, as well as specific Reddit and Telegram channels and Facebook groups.

Thirteen veterans interviewed said their friends or families held the same extreme views. Some said their parents influenced their political beliefs, while others said they developed their viewpoints through their involvement in social or college clubs. One veteran described having a large network of like-minded friends who he regularly met with in person and online.

“I am not fighting this battle alone. I have several people who are right on board with me,” he’s quoted as saying. “We meet three times a week to put documents together and fight the battle… there’s a lot of people that are digging.”

Four veterans in RAND’s original survey had previously expressed strong support for the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization that’s known to have recruited veterans. When interviewed as part of RAND’s newest report, those four veterans all denied supporting the group.

Conversely, nearly all the veterans who originally said they believed the Great Replacement theory affirmed that support during their interviews. The Great Replacement theory refers to a baseless idea that lenient immigration policies are being designed to replace the power and culture of white people in the U.S. The theory has become more popular in recent years and has incited multiple instances of violence.

The five veterans whose views aligned with QAnon also said during their interviews that they still supported at least some of the conspiracy theories claimed by the group. QAnon is an umbrella term for several theories that falsely allege a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the world.

“People laugh about this because it’s so sick and twisted, but I 100% agree with it,” one veteran was quoted as saying.

Many of the veterans who were interviewed said they supported the notion that American patriots would have to resort to political violence in order to save their country. However, none talked about specific plans to participate in violence in the near future, Helmus said.

The veterans who supported political violence offered several issues they believed would justify it, including the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border or “overzealous” government policies to curb climate change. They also cited baseless ideas about the government stripping away First Amendment and Second Amendment protections and forcing children to receive coronavirus vaccines without parents’ permission.

One participant made baseless claims that a Democratic win in the November presidential election would lead to “the loss of the First Amendment,” which he said would ignite a civil war.

“It was disconcerting the degree to which people were willing to highlight how violence is a potential solution – and at times, a necessary solution – to address the current political state,” Helmus said. “Their notions of threats were highly exaggerated. You could see how, if they believed those threats, then those ideas of violence become more palpable.”

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to MVJ-Tips@militarytimes.com.

Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She’s reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.

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