Helping Veterans Thrive: The Importance of Peer Support in Preventing Domestic Violent Extremism

Chairman Takano, Ranking Member Bost, and members of the committee: thank you for the opportunity to appear here today to discuss an urgent threat facing our veteran community and our nation. My name is Chris Purdy, and I’m the Director of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach at Human Rights First. Veterans for American Ideals is a coalition of veterans and allies who continue their service to America by upholding, defending, and advocating for human rights at home and abroad. I served in the United States Army National Guard from 2004 to 2012, and deployed to Iraq as part of a Convoy Escort Team in 2011.

This generation of veterans, like those who came before us, are bonded by shared experience. We speak a common language, share a worldview grounded in public service, and are committed to building a better world grounded in democratic ideals. We know that veterans are more likely to engage in volunteer efforts1, be leaders in their community, have more tendencies to be bipartisan2. We saw an example of this last August when veterans from across the political spectrum came together to rescue our Afghan allies in the Kabul evacuation3. That moment exemplified the power for good that a united veteran community can have. Unfortunately, that has become an exception rather than the norm.

There is a concerted effort to turn veterans against the democratic ideals we swore to defend. That effort is rooted in intentional misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information campaigns that advance an agenda to set veterans against one another and against other elements of society to hinder us from acting collectively for the good of our country.

Veterans are targeted because we hold a special and unique place in our society and public life. This generation of service members voluntarily joined a wartime military knowing the sacrifices we would have to make. We joined knowing that we would likely deploy overseas, but that we had the support of the American public. We believed service to be the highest form of sacrifice and that our nation saw military service as distinct and honorable. We served at home and abroad under a shared set of values: selfless sacrifice, duty, and personal courage.

When we returned from overseas deployments, veterans maintained that credibility in civilian life. The civilian community extended generous thanks to veterans, and we became credible spokespeople for American ideals. We are grateful for our nation’s thanks and veterans have generally done our best to use this respected social position for good.

Others noticed this gratitude and acted to exploit, co-opt, and commodify the veteran community. Commercial brands try to cash in on veterans’ desire to maintain their service-based identities.

Social media personalities promote veterans and the veteran brand to develop large followings under the guise of “supporting the troops.” Veteran status became something that could be packaged, marketed, and sold on a T-shirt or in a bag of coffee4. Commodifying veteran status is dangerous because it allows people to purchase proximity and some have used it for nefarious purposes.

Bad actors recruit veterans to make use of our credibility. Anti-government and white nationalist organizations whose agendas mask themselves in patriotic rhetoric but are rooted in white supremacy rather than patriotism have targeted veterans to be the faces and promoters of their movements. Online and off, these groups groom and recruit veterans by exploiting cultural grievances to push veterans toward extremism and extremist circles.

First, they encourage our community to be distrustful of our government and our fellow citizens, then they provide outlets and echo chambers where this distrust builds. Finally, they invite these radicalized veterans into a movement that espouses that same distrust, sometimes violently. As politics have polarized, we have seen politicians use the same strategy of activating veterans to further their aims.

Those who would undercut our democracy, oppose racial and religious diversity, and challenge the idea of pluralism are unpatriotic and anti-American. This country’s ideals are grounded in the motto e pluribus unum, “out of many, one,” and history has shown that America is greatest when we celebrate our diversity. Yet these extremists manipulate veterans’ voices to further their destructive anti-American aims. While they feint sharing veterans’ values of duty, honor, and sacrifice, the anti-government militias, extremist organizations, and their supporters are not patriots and do not share American values.

It is the responsibility of real patriots to hold these bad actors accountable and hold our leaders to real American ideals. Most of the veterans recruited into extremist activity were done so deceptively, and now they must have an opportunity to learn the truth: that reactionary violence is not the way to love and preserve our country. Through community outreach, social connection, and even the use of government resources, veterans must work with veterans to turn them away from violent extremism and back toward democratic action. If we do not, we risk the disintegration of the fabric of America, and the Balkanization of our social life – a truly dangerous proposition.

This Congress must respond with solutions. If we do not invest in preventative and restorative policies, we risk this and future generations of veterans continuing to fall prey to violent anti-government actors. We must inoculate those most at risk from being radicalized and invest in services to help those who have gone astray. To that end, we recommend facilitation and oversight of voter education campaigns to specifically reach veterans, investigation of foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns that target the veteran community, and broad support for community service programs for veterans.

If we do not take action, those who attempted to violently circumvent the Constitution on January 6th or rallied for White Nationalism in Charlottesville in 2017 will continue their destructive anti-American actions. They will continue to exploit the cycle of usurping veterans’ honorable status, the commodification of that status, and then radicalization to foment more violent attacks on our society.

If we do not take action, we risk a generational, asymmetric conflict between Americans, fought online and in the streets. We also risk this anti-democratic virus spreading from the veteran community to our active duty military, where it can only have a degrading effect on troop readiness and national security. We risk weakening and further dividing America, failing in our promise to protect our own.

Testimony

Published on March 31, 2022

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