As a violent mob descended on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, lawmakers and aides hid wherever they could, waiting for the military and police to arrive. But many of those who stormed the Capitol were military veterans themselves, who had once sworn to protect the Constitution. In fact, an NPR analysis has found that nearly 1 in 5 people charged over their alleged involvement in the attack on the U.S. Capitol appear to have a military history.
NPR compiled a list of individuals facing federal or District of Columbia charges in connection with the events of Jan. 6. Of more than 140 charged so far, a review of military records, social media accounts, court documents and news reports indicate at least 27 of those charged, or nearly 20%, have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military. To put that number in perspective, only about 7% of all American adults are military veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Several veterans are charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. One of them is Larry Rendall Brock Jr. The Air Force veteran was photographed in a military-style helmet and tactical vest carrying flex cuffs inside the Capitol. He posted on Facebook that he was preparing for a "Second Civil War," according to documents filed in federal court. In the weeks after Biden's victory, Brock posted that "we are now under occupation by a hostile governing force."
"I see no distinction between a group of Americans seizing power and governing with complete disregard to the Constitution and an invading force of Chinese communists accomplishing the same objective," Brock wrote. (There is no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.) He ended his post with a reference to the oath taken by members of the military: "Against all enemies foreign and domestic."
Some veterans who allegedly stormed the Capitol are still serving in some capacity. Jacob Fracker, 29, was an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps and deployed to Afghanistan twice, according to the Pentagon. He now serves in the Virginia National Guard, according to widespread news reports, though he was not among the service members deployed to Washington ahead of the inauguration. He is also a police officer in Rocky Mount, Va. With him at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was his colleague from the Rocky Mount Police Department, Thomas Robertson, 47, who is an Army veteran also facing charges.
Federal prosecutors have also alleged that multiple members of the right-wing extremist group the Oath Keepers took part in the "incursion" at the Capitol. The group has been known to target and recruit active-duty members of the military and veterans, in part for their specialized skills. Among those charged in relation to the storming of the Capitol are Thomas Edward Caldwell, a Navy veteran and alleged leader among the Oath Keepers, and Donovan Ray Crowl, a Marine Corps veteran. They have been charged with conspiracy to obstruct the Electoral College vote, among other alleged crimes.
Attorneys representing those facing charges did not respond to NPR's messages seeking comment.
Rooting out extremism
Roughly one-third of active duty troops said they had "personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months," according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Military Times and Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Troops said they had seen "swastikas being drawn on service members' cars, tattoos affiliated with white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi-style salutes between individuals."
At least one individual charged in connection with the assault on the Capitol allegedly embraced that extremist ideology. Timothy Louis Hale-Cusanelli, 30, is a Navy contractor who has worked at a naval weapons station with a secret security clearance, according to court documents. He is also an Army Reserve sergeant in the 174th Infantry Brigade and an "avowed white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer," according to court documents.
Some experts argue the military has not done enough to tamp down on extremism in its ranks.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, called the military's efforts largely "haphazard."
"It's not like the military is just tolerating white supremacists," Pitcavage told NPR. But he said efforts to address the problem need to be more systematic.
"Not only does there need to be training," Pitcavage said, "but there also need to be clear expectations coming down from on high about what you should do when you encounter an extremist in your unit, at your base or whatever the circumstances are, and that here are the procedures that need to be followed."
The problem is not entirely lost on the Defense Department. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, a senior defense official told NPR there were 68 notifications of investigations by the FBI last year of former and current military members pertaining to domestic extremism.
When extremism in the military does go undetected or ignored, the stakes can be high.
As Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, testified to Congress, veterans and military personnel "have training that makes terrorist attacks more achievable and more deadly."
In 2019, federal prosecutors said that Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson had planned a series of violent attacks against liberal politicians, and was an avowed white nationalist for decades. Hasson ultimately pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges.
Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, was an Army veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War. He had taken inspiration from the white supremacist novel "The Turner Diaries," which continues to hold sway among far-right extremists.
Pitcavage cautions that there is limited evidence military veterans are more susceptible to extremist ideology than any other group of Americans.
"Overall, our veteran population is largely reflective of our general population," Pitcavage said.
Veterans, for example, have also been on the front lines of the fight against extremism. Brian Sicknick, the police officer who died trying to prevent the mob from storming the Capitol, was also a veteran.
The New Jersey Air National Guard, where Sicknick served, said, "Staff Sgt. Sicknick's commitment to service and to protect his community, state, and nation will never be forgotten."
In his inaugural address on Wednesday, President Biden pledged to combat "a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism."
Likewise, Biden's pick to lead the Department of Defense, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, told Congress on Tuesday that, if confirmed, he would work to combat extremism in the military, a problem the Defense Department acknowledged in a report in December.
Austin, who would be the nation's first Black defense secretary, said he would fight hard "to rid our ranks of racists."
"The Defense Department's job is to keep America safe from our enemies," he testified. "But we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're still learning new information about the people involved in the attack on the Capitol on January 6. One trend that has alarmed military leaders is the number of veterans who appear to have taken part in the insurrection. By NPR's count, nearly 20% percent of people charged in connection with the attack and rioting are veterans. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach is here to talk about what we found.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So begin by giving us an overview of your findings.
DREISBACH: Well, we took a look at everyone we could find who's facing criminal charges in connection with the attack on the Capitol on January 6. The charges run everything from curfew violations to unlawful entry of the Capitol grounds, theft of government property, weapons charges, assault - among others. And anecdotally, we had heard reports about a number of military veterans among the people who were involved in some way.
We knew, for example, about Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by police while climbing over a barricaded door inside the Capitol building. She was an Air Force veteran. You might have also seen photos of a guy inside the Capitol wearing a military-style helmet, tactical vest and carrying flex cuffs. Well, federal prosecutors said his name is Larry Brock, and he's an Air Force veteran. And so what we wanted to know is exactly how big is this group?
SHAPIRO: And as we said, the number is close to 20% - almost 1 in 5 people. Put that into context for us. How does that compare, for example, to the overall percentage of veterans in the U.S.?
DREISBACH: Yeah, about 7% of all adults in the U.S. are military veterans, according to the Census Bureau. So that proportion of vets among people facing charges is quite a bit higher. But there are close to 20 million veterans in the country overall. It's a large, very diverse group of people, especially the younger generation. And the vast majority, we should say, do not get involved in extremism. But, of course, this is still a problem.
SHAPIRO: Is there any way of quantifying how big a problem this is in the armed forces and among veterans?
DREISBACH: Yeah, I mean, our colleague Tom Bowman reported that last year, the FBI had notified the Defense Department of 68 investigations of current or former service members in connection with possible domestic extremism. There's also a survey by the Military Times last year that found about a third of active-duty troops said they had personally witnessed white nationalist activity in the military - things like drawing swastikas or getting white supremacist tattoos. Now, I talked to Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League about this. And he said, you know, so far, the military's efforts to combat extremism in its ranks have largely been haphazard.
MARK PITCAVAGE: So an extremist discovered in one unit, on one base over here, there may be prompt action taken. The person may be very quickly administratively processed out. A very similar extremist in another unit, on another base somewhere else, maybe nothing is done.
DREISBACH: Pitcavage says there really needs to be systemic training throughout all of the services so everyone knows how to identify a problem and what to do once they spot it. And the Biden team has said that rooting out extremism is now a top priority for their administration.
SHAPIRO: Tom, this problem has newly become apparent. But is it a new problem?
DREISBACH: No. I mean, we've known that some extremism groups - extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, for example, they have specifically targeted veterans for recruitment over the years. And the concern is that military veterans often do have specialized training, which can make attacks more deadly. You know, some experts point to Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing years ago. He was an Army veteran. And so the stakes can be high.
But, you know, we should say, among vets, you'll also find really strong resistance to extremism, too. the police officer, Brian Sicknick, who was killed that day at the Capitol, defending it from the mob, he was also a veteran, and he served in the Air National Guard.
SHAPIRO: NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks a lot.
DREISBACH: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.