| by Amy Cooter

In this Research Note, Director of Research & Academic Development Dr. Amy Cooter reflects on how her ongoing research with military veterans about extremist exploitation intersects with former Capitol Police Staff Sergeant Aquilino Gonell’s reflections on January 6th and concerns for the upcoming 2024 Presidential Election. 

Veterans and Domestic Militias

For nearly 20 years, I have studied US domestic militias and other groups who nostalgically yearn for a return to an earlier version of the country that may have never existed. One thing I observed first hand during my three years of ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with Michigan Militia members was the strong presence of military veterans on militia membership rosters. Among the groups I observed, approximately 40% of militia leaders and 30% of members had previous military experience. Most of these veterans actively sought out such groups, as opposed to being recruited by them. 

Some of the veterans told me they joined militias because they wanted to find ways to continue serving their country after they were honorably discharged or that they were looking for a surrogate community that could provide the camaraderie and sense of purpose that they experienced during service. These veterans all remembered their time in the military positively, overall, and believed militia membership would let them continue using and teaching survivalist basic medical skills while still receiving respect from others who had not served. These veterans nearly always joined what are called constitutional militia groups, ones that are often quite similar to a “grown up Boy Scouts” image that all militias like to portray themselves as in public.  Constitutionalist militias are wary of the government, yet believe they have an onus to take a defensive, not offensive, position, relative to government actors.

A small minority of the veterans I encountered were searching for something like a militia group for very different reasons than camaraderie and target shooting. This subset remembered their military service with purely negative emotions. Some of them had been dishonorably discharged, but others were simply angry and wanted an outlet for that anger. They commonly believed that the military or the VA had treated them unfairly by actively denying pay raises, health care, or various other benefits they felt they had earned. In the most extreme cases, some of these militia-seeking veterans believed they had been deployed to war zones solely as guinea pigs in undefined yet nefarious experimentation perpetrated on their bodies by their own government. Though rare, these extreme views have a dangerous history. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who remains the most notorious veteran-turned-terrorist, espoused similar beliefs about having been experimented on while deployed and came to believe that his involvement in the Gulf War was an honorless, shameful experience perpetrated by a corrupt government.

The angry subset of militia-seeking veterans I observed told me that they believed their government was a continuing threat to their personal liberties and safety and that they wanted to maintain skills they assumed would be necessary in some inevitable future conflict with government actors. By the time I spoke with them, many had maintained a fixation on a personal conflict with the government for many years following their separation from service. Some even expressed a desire to proactively initiate anti-government violence and hoped to find like-minded compatriots within militia groups. These veterans almost uniformly settled into millenarian militia units that much more closely match the stereotypical image of violent, conspiratorial men who are ready to lash out at the government or other authority figures. While my fieldwork was ongoing, members of one such millenarian unit in Michigan were charged with seditious conspiracy and other crimes for an alleged plot to murder police officers, though they were ultimately acquitted of all but relatively minimal weapons charges.

When the 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism was released during my fieldwork with these groups, many people interpreted the report as saying that all veterans returning from conflict were already extremists who posed a threat to civilians. I witnessed the size of militias dramatically expand at this time, as a result of veterans and their sympathizers finding confirmation of their worst fears within the framing of this report. Most of the new members I saw joined constitutionalist units, but even these units started operating more covertly and with more obvious hostility following the report’s release. Anger was more obvious, across vocal tones, body postures, and conversational topics alike. This evolution demonstrated how some constitutionalist members—veterans included—might slip away from a pursuit of comradery and skill maintenance into more negative motives for their militia involvement and activity. The DHS report, in sharp contrast to its stated goal of limiting danger posed by a handful of veterans, instead radicalized others into a more antagonistic mindset that also continued to grow among the general public through the Obama era. 

Veterans and January 6th

It was not until more than a decade later, however, that public attention really turned to the scale of possible harms that can emerge if veterans are radicalized. The majority of insurrectionists at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, were not military veterans (and, in fact, were not connected to any formal group at all). But veterans nonetheless participated in the insurrection at disproportionate rates relative to their presence in the overall US population. As of this writing, somewhere between 13%-17% of the insurrectionists who have been criminally charged for their actions that day had military experience, which is more than double the military representation in the US population as a whole.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs hosted hearings later that year with various experts to better understand the possible threat extremists pose toward our veterans and our nation. As I testified during one such hearing, the concern is not that most veterans are extremists. They certainly are not. The vast majority of veterans are patriots who continue to serve their country honorably. The few who are drawn into extremism, however, may pose outsized risks due to their specialized knowledge and skills which make them targets of active recruitment by some extremist organizations that want to harm democracy or its representatives.

Existing academic research on the connections between military experience and extremism sheds partial light on concerning dynamics. Some studies are retrospective and examine the harms committed by particular bad actors. Others use surveys to assess extremist beliefs and exposures among various different military populations. However, research involving the vast majority of veterans who do not engage in extremist activity is conspicuously absent. I began a project last year to add to this body of research, leveraging in-depth interviews with veterans to better understand their exposures to extremism, how the presence of extremist beliefs influence unit readiness, and, most importantly, what veterans themselves believe we should be doing to prevent extremist exploitation of our military members. My core goal is to eventually suggest additional best practices for military training and practices, derived from the best experts–veterans themselves–to identify and deter extremism that compromises military readiness and exploits veterans’ skills and patriotism

Data collection for this project is ongoing, but some preliminary trends have already emerged from the 28 formal interviewees I’ve spoken with so far and who represent all military branches. These initial respondents generally agree that the military should be doing more at every stage of service to monitor for extremism within the ranks and to educate service members about what extremism means. Ensuring service members know that they may be perceived as valuable targets among extremist populations who want to warp their patriotism and exploit their skills has been one common theme interviewees mention for such education efforts. Interviewees additionally worry that the pervasiveness of Fox News on military bases gives the impression that it is an official, military source of news, lending it authenticity and, they worry, contributing to conspiracism and propensities for extremist thinking within the ranks. 

Real Patriotism

One of the people I have spoken with who has echoed these themes is Staff Sergeant Aquilino Gonell. Sgt. Gonell is a military veteran who was injured while defending the Capitol on January 6th and who subsequently testified to Congress and in various court proceedings about his experiences that day. I had the privilege of being connected to him while publicizing my research and then learned more about his story through his recently-released autobiography, American Shield.

Sgt. Gonell, like other veterans to whom I have spoken, was appalled when he learned that any veterans, let alone so many, had participated in the insurrection. He noted that they all took the same oath that he did to protect the country, yet their actions directly violated that oath. He was further incensed as he discussed how some of these insurrectionist veterans have since appealed to their military service in an effort to receive reduced sentences in subsequent criminal proceedings. He, much as prosecutors have argued, said that insurrectionists who were veterans should, instead, be “held accountable to a higher standard” because “they knew better” as a result of the instruction they received while in the military about their country and their own obligations to uphold the Constitution. Motivated by these perversions of service member’s oaths, Sgt. Gonell has made it part of his ongoing mission to personally attend these trials when he knows something about the defendant’s actions on January 6th, testifying when he can in an attempt to ensure their accountability.

During our conversation, Sgt. Gonell also kept returning to the contrast between his own trajectory, which he calls “a typical immigrant story,” and that of the insurrectionists. His autobiography details this trajectory and personalizes the challenges in coming to a new country, in working hard for citizenship and the American Dream’s promises of equality and upward mobility. Through recounting in those pages some of the hardships his family faced, Gonell shows how his decisions to join the military and, later, the Capitol Police are simultaneously efforts to ensure greater financial security for his family and to honorably serve his country. 

Sgt. Gonell’s journey embodies the stories we collectively tell ourselves about what citizens are supposed to be: someone who makes repeated choices to follow the rules, who works hard and supports their family, who sacrifices to earn a college degree and to aim for something higher than what chance afforded them. Someone who even joins the military (when soldiers represent the ideal archetype of citizenship in our collective mythos) and then the Capitol police force, protecting a site crucial for both the practical and symbolic functioning of our democracy. Yet Gonell and other officers were called “traitors” and faced racial slurs and violent, physical attacks on January 6th. He noted that his attackers were the same people who, in other contexts, vehemently appeal to the very Constitution and democratic principles that their actions threatened. 

Jan 6th’s Causes

Sgt. Gonell had no difficulties, either in our conversation and in his book, attributing the Capitol violence or the ire that inspired it to former President Trump’s influence. He told me, “when you have someone feeding [people] lies consistently, saying that we’re going to be ‘invaded’ or ‘attacked,’ that, ‘you’re not going to have a country, you need to fight,’ these are really rally calls,” similar, he said, to what service members hear in combat zones to psych people up before an engagement. 

He observed that despite these references to fears of the southern border being invaded as a motivation for action, a real invasion was perpetrated at the Capitol by people who do not respect the Constitution. He further noted the irony of this pervasive anti-immigrant fear by emphasizing that he and many of the other officers who were physically attacked, called racist slurs, and who are now called liars about those experiences are, in fact, immigrants who were attempting to protect lawmakers from “native born Americans” who need to do more to “think for themselves.”

Looking Ahead to 2024

Sgt. Gonell says that he is hopeful that the US is now in a better position to withstand fascism and other future challenges as a result of January 6th, but is still concerned that people who are afraid of change, who feel like they have missed out on recent social progress have contributed to “the pillars of our democracy [being] degraded, damaged, and corroded” in ways that mean the risk is far from over. 

From my perspective as someone who studies militias and other nostalgic groups that are motivated by a sense of lost culture or society, I’m afraid that I share his concerns. The groups I study continue to be much quieter than they were leading up to the 2020 Presidential election. We are not currently seeing specific threats or plans for actions the way we did before January 6th. And yet the underlying fears and resentments that inspired the Capitol attack have not disappeared. Many people still believe the last Presidential election was stolen, and some groups I monitor believe that the next one will be, too. Others have ongoing fears of immigrants or other cultural changes that may fall under ideas of racial resentment, or economic threat, or both–fears they believe are much more pressing when Democrats hold the highest office.

We have already seen various public officials facing a rash of bomb threats, swatting attempts, racist onslaughts, and other attacks in places where Trump has been declared ineligible to be on the ballot due to his role in the insurrection, and in places where he faces various legal battles. Trump himself has likewise indicated that violence could occur if certain outcomes do not go his way, and, with him, there is a non-existent line between describing what some of his supporters could do and actively encouraging them into that action.

It is unlikely that we will see another storming of the US Capitol building, but that does not mean we should be unprepared for strife and violence as the 2024 election approaches. In the last four years, local and state politics have risen in importance to various Trump-supporting groups. School boards in particular have become a site of anger and even violence as these groups and others attempt to win perceived culture wars. This is likely to continue, alongside further attempts to intimidate various public officials into silence or manipulate them into taking certain actions. Election officials, polling sites, and other venues related to campaigning and election activities are likely to need additional protections in coming months as GOP candidates continue to debate and otherwise espouse and legitimize the fears of their most volatile constituents. 

Social scientists are more comfortable with retrospective analysis than prescriptive advice on how to handle likely threats, in part because it is difficult to know what to do before we fully know the source and extent of that threat. But there are basic actions that all of us can take to contribute to the resiliency of our democracy, including investigating our news sources and trying to be on guard against mis- and dis-information. Listening to the experiences and expertise of real patriots like Sgt. Gonell who, unlike the insurrectionists, represents the character and concerns of the vast majority of military veterans. We should try to be cautious, rather than afraid, while still speaking up for the truth and supporting officials who follow the rule of law. And maybe start by reading Sgt. Gonell’s book. It’s a good reminder of who we say we are as a nation, who we can be, and what we have to do to maintain this fragile democracy for ourselves.

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