By Patrick R. Riccards
Each year as Veterans Day approaches, I often think of my maternal grandfather. A high school dropout, he joined the U.S. Army and was shipped off to Europe. The Army taught him how to drive a truck, a skill he would later use, as a Teamsters truck driver, to care for a family of seven back in New Jersey. While in Germany, he met my maternal grandmother. My mom was born in Germany, moving to Italy as a toddler as my grandfather was reassigned. The whole family came to the States when my mother was five.
My grandfather left the U.S. Army with the rank of sergeant, having served during both World War II and Korea. While he wasn’t much for talking (about anything, including his military service) I know it was a time of his life that he was very proud of. I remember when I was about 10 years old and he was showing me his old patrol cap. Even after all those years, it was something that was incredibly meaningful to him, someone who wasn’t particularly fond of sentimentality.
I often think of him and his generation. Of those not sure what to do with their lives, who answered their nation’s call and found a path forward. Of the debt we owe them, well beyond the VA care my grandfather received until his last day. Of how we honor the service of those who fought to defend and protect the representative democracy we hold so dear. Of how our nation honors them after their service.
Every day, beyond today, should be a day when we honor those who have put on the uniform and served our nation. Unfortunately, there are too many that are now taking advantage of the patriotism and sense of duty of U.S. military personnel, seeking to abuse the nobility of military service and apply it to its antithesis … violent white supremacy.
Ten percent of those involved in January 6 were military veterans. According to the Military Times, more than a third of active duty military personnel said they witnessed some type of racist or white supremacist ideology or activity when serving. And the Center for Strategic & International Studies found that domestic terror attacks and plots linked to military personnel more than quadrupled between 2019 and 2020.
Just as veterans with experience driving trucks and moving cargo are attractive to the Teamsters, those with specific military training and skills are attractive to violent white supremacist groups. Researchers have found that white supremacists are particularly skilled at preying on those identified as involuntary or premature separations from the military or those who have voiced dissatisfaction with their military experience.
We should do better by our veterans. We can do better. And we must do better.
Service in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be respected and revered, not abused or taken advantage of. Service, particularly post 9–11, should be see for what it is, not bastardized into fertilizer for islamophobia. And the men and women who choose to serve in the military should be seen as patriots, not as potential recruits for the violent extremist movement.
We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude, as well as the support and services they need to successfully reintegrate into civilian life. We cannot let hate groups recruit them because the government has failed to provide the healthcare and job services they are entitled to. We cannot let white supremacists enlist them because society today may take issue with the ideological drivers behind the missions they were assigned to. And we cannot let extremists win by writing off our veterans for doing what we asked, and what we needed, them to do halfway around the globe.
How do we do it? As part of services provided under the Department of Veterans Affairs, we must support our active military personnel and veterans to help them successfully disengage from violent extremism and reintegrate them into civil society by providing the services, information, and training they need.
It means enhancing outreach to and engagement with veterans, their family members, peers, and others on the dangers of violent extremism and the zeal with which extremist groups seek to recruit and convert veterans to their cause.
It means offering tertiary intervention services to veterans currently involved in violent extremism, as well as to military families and loved ones close to veterans who are currently involved in violent extremism.
And it means providing education and training resources to those individuals entrusted with the care of our veterans and their families.
Those who have served our country deserve the educational benefits first provided under the GI Bill almost a century ago. They deserve comprehensive health care, including for PTSD, well beyond the services they are often able to receive today from the VA. And they need access to the social services and supports necessary to allow them to continue to live an honorable life of service, and not fall victim to violent extremist groups.
Sadly, service to our nation has been used, abused, and mistreated by violent white supremacist groups for far too long. Now is the time to stand up and take ownership of the situation and to properly honor our service men and women.
As events like the Oklahoma City bombing demonstrate, it takes only a few highly trained individuals with military background to successfully perform acts of domestic terrorism. We have a collective debt to our nation to help those who may be targeted for recruitment by white supremacy extremist groups and to all of those who have worn our nation’s uniform to ensure that veterans are respected for their service. That means helping keep them from lives of hate.