When U.S. Army veteran Brian Snow drove 12 hours from his home in Indiana to Washington for then-President Donald Trump’s rally on the Ellipse Jan. 6 — amid chants of “stop the steal” — he came prepared for a fight. Clad in body armor, the father or four feared he could be attacked just for attending the event.
Still, he said, he felt called to be there.
“The president asked for people to come himself. So, you know, that’s what we do,” Snow said on that day a year ago, standing just outside the White House grounds.
But as that protest escalated into an insurrection, it was Trump’s supporters who turned to violence, brutally overtaking security forces to breach the U.S. Capitol and temporarily derailing the certification of the 2020 election.
Among those rioters were dozens of former members of the armed forces, as well as a handful of current service members sworn to protect the country and the Constitution. Roughly 70 of the 800 people who faced criminal charges in the wake of the attack had a military background.
While Snow calls violence against police officers “appalling” and did not storm the Capitol himself, he says he understands the motivation driving the military men and women who did. Because despite the more than 60 unsuccessful lawsuits filed by the former president and his allies, thorough reviews across six critical swing states, and zero documented evidence of widespread voter fraud, he still insists the election was “tainted.”
“If you feel like liberty is being trampled on, then you have a responsibility,” Snow said.
To the Pentagon, the elevated number of military-trained rioters motivated by these false claims is not coincidental, but a sign of extremism in the ranks–an enduring, nocuous problem thrown under a new spotlight by the events of Jan. 6th and one in urgent need of attention.
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In the weeks following the attack, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an unprecedented stand down across the armed services to address extremism. And in the final weeks of 2021, the Pentagon issued a new definition of prohibited extremist activities intended to identify radicalized service members and updated guidelines on social media, warning that “liking” or reposting extremist content could result in disciplinary action.
“The new definition preserves a service members right of expression to the extent possible, while also balancing the need for good order and discipline to affect military combat and unit readiness,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman.
Additionally, military recruiters are now required to ask candidates about any connections they may have to extremist groups, and service members transitioning to civilian life are warned that they might be approached by these organizations.
While the impact of these measures remain to be see, many — like David Smith, a former Navy medic who served in Afghanistan — fear that without further action, the issue will only intensify.
“I think when we talk about extremism, we should actually like focus in on what the actual extremism is, which is white nationalism,” Smith said. “The military doesn’t want to have to actively address it.”
Smith happened to be passing out hand-warmers to homeless people near the Capitol on Jan. 6, and witnessed some of the rioters’ brutality firsthand.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Smith said, noting especially his fellow veterans among the mob. “To see them storming the building and to do so as if they had the authority to do so — it goes against everything and we swore an oath to protect.”
Smith is the founder of Continue to Serve, a grassroots organization dedicated to engaging former members of the military in lawful activism and community service centered on social justice issues. But he says many veterans are still vulnerable to being swayed by extremists.
“When we talk about veterans and their willingness to serve, they have an undying patriotism. And when politicians can manipulate that, that’s going to give them a lot of power,” Smith said.
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Inaction, he predicts, will invite history to repeat itself.
“We’ve got to ensure that we’re creating mechanisms so that when people are getting out of the military, they actually have a place to go,” he said. “And they’re not falling into these groups where they are being indoctrinated and they’re being radicalized and they’re, they’re doing what they did on January 6th.”