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Veterans address extremism in the military debate

Published: May. 6, 2021 at 9:59 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - In the aftermath of the violence at the U.S. Capitol this past January, there’s a discussion taking place about rooting out extremism in the military. Several of the rioters arrested or facing potential charges are veterans. While some veterans are speaking out about concerns within their own ranks, others say such fears are overblown.

“It just flabbergasts me that people who took an oath to support and defend the Constitution would attack the U.S. Capitol,” said Joe Plenzler.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonels Joe Plenzler and Scott Cooper were troubled to learn of fellow veterans accused of participating in the storming of the Capitol earlier this year.

In response, Plenzler and Cooper co-wrote an article calling for accountability of those involved. They also denounce the misinformation and harsh rhetoric that – in their view – undermines confidence in our institutions.

“The Oath Keepers and some of these other organizations that were involved in the attacks on January 6th are also preying on veterans trying to give them a sense of belonging, a sense of community in a very very tragic, treacherous and dangerous way,” said Scott Cooper.

A report by Military Times that examined records from the storming of the Capitol found that about 13% of those arrested and charged were veterans, although they only make up about seven percent of the overall U.S. population. Marines and infantry had the highest representation of those veterans’ arrests, according to the study.

Plenzler and Cooper are also hosting meetings with community leaders and fellow veterans to promote stronger civics education. Their hope is to elevate voices within the veterans community to show leadership at a fraught time for the country.

“This is the moment the country needs you, as involved and engaged citizens,” said Scott Cooper.

Cooper also recently launched the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, a nonpartisan effort bringing together veterans, military families, and support organizations to strengthen American democracy and promote the shared obligations of citizenship.

“We need to stop listening to the fear mongers and the agitators and stop seeing our fellow Americans as the enemy,” said Plenzler.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered “stand downs” - days set aside so service members could further discuss the issues, such as race and ideological values. But at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, lawmakers and experts grappled with how to define and tackle extremism in the military.

“If we’re going to make these efforts to eradicate extremism from our military that’s a noble undertaking, but we have to ensure that we protect our First Amendment for our service members,” said Mike Berry, general counsel of First Liberty Institute.

Marine veteran Mike Berry, a lawyer, recently testified before the House Armed services committee. He’s concerned reforms could punish service members with conservative or Judeo-Christian beliefs. Berry also fears drastic changes could lead to confusion and a break-down in order within the Armed Forces.

“That’s a very harmful and corrosive environment that we absolutely don’t want to be creating in our military right now, with so many external threats,” said Berry.

Berry says he believes very few service members would fall under the category of violent extremists, so he thinks the existing system can address any current problems.

“We already have laws and regulations and policies on our books that prohibit 99.9% of what we’re trying to prohibit. Why don’t we focus on ensuring that our prosecutors, our investigators, have the tools that they need to carry out their jobs?” said Berry.

At the hearing, experts suggested the military consider further examine this issue, more surveillance of service members’ social media, as well as additional training.

The Pentagon is conducting further study of this issue and is expected to offer further guidance on what does and does not constitute ‘extremism.’

Supervisor of Videography Timothy Knapp and Producer Karen Daborowski contributed to this report.

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