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Marine One veteran arrested for storming U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6

For years, service members and military veterans have been targeted for recruitment by domestic extremist organizations like the Oath Keepers

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Marine One, with President Joe Biden aboard, lifts off from the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Fifteen years before allegedly breaking into and rioting at the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6, veteran John Daniel Andries had one of the most high-profile and serious jobs in the military — a crew chief for the U.S. Marine Corp’s presidential helicopter squadron.

The 35-year-old Marine Corp veteran has been charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct, both felonies, for his role in the deadly Capitol riot that attempted to prevent the confirmation of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, The Washington Post reported.

Andries joined Marine Helicopter Squadron in 2006, the military unit responsible for flying and maintaining the helicopters that are used to transport the president of the United States, and he would have served during the Bush and Obama presidencies, according to the Post. When the commander in chief is aboard one of the rotary-wing aircraft, it’s designated Marine One.

The Post reported that the former Marine is just one of more than 30 veterans who have been arrested for participating in the deadly Capitol riot. In late January, when 21 veterans had been arrested, CNN found that former services members comprised about 14% of those arrested in the insurrection. This is more than twice the average number of veterans in America’s adult population, according to CNN.

Since then, the Defense Department — under the leadership of Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former Army four-star general — has ordered the military to take a “stand down” to discuss extremism in its ranks and to be begin rooting out members not living up to their constitutional oath to serve the country.

“We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” the defense secretary said last month.

But for years, active-duty service members and veterans have been participating in hate groups.

Task & Purpose, a news publication that covers the military, reported that the ““Pentagon knows it has a problem on its hands” and that “extremists are hard to track online and have their own obscure subculture that allows them to form invisible bonds.” The high numbers of veterans who participated, and have since been arrested, in the Capitol riot has only brought the problem into the public’s consciousness.

A June 2020 Defense Department report to the congressional Armed Services committees released this month included “seven recommendations to tighten up DOD’s policies” related to weeding out recruits aligned with domestic extremism, Military Times reported.

The Defense Department’s suggestions include creating a consistent definition of domestic extremism across the branches and identifying questionable tattoos on recruits that could then be checked against an FBI database.

“The only recommendation DOoD hasn’t started to implement is the suggestion to create a military separation code that would indicate domestic extremism as a cause for discharge, which would not only inform potential employers of past activities, but give DOD a way to centrally track the number of service members booted for it,” according to Military Times.

Ideal targets

Groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who actively recruit service members and veterans, had been planning their attack on the Capitol for months, The Associated Press reported. These plans including war gaming, a potential “quick reaction force” and staging weapons in advance, according to the AP. These preparations are similar to those of a military-like mission.

The Oath Keepers, whose logo is styled like the patches of elite units within the U.S. Army, has an “explicit focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first responder personnel,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

And for years, veterans have been targeted online by hate groups and disinformation because of their backgrounds and perceived standing in their communities.

“White supremacy groups and foreign disinformation campaigns target service members, veterans and people in our community because we’re seen as community leaders,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, a U.S. Army veteran who’s spent years fighting for veterans’ rights and investigating how online extremism effects the military community, to Public Broadcasting Service.

“Service members and veterans are more likely to vote. They’re more likely to have leadership positions within the community, whether that’s helping run a Scout troop, or being firefighters or running for office,” he explains. “Because we are influencers in the pre-social media sense, we’re an economically efficient target for these folks.”

“The radicalization of individual service members and veterans has had a negative influence on their immediate community, their family, their social circles,” Goldsmith adds.

Not a new problem

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, Goldsmith had flagged around 100 questionable Facebook accounts, with millions of followers, that had “target(ed) military personnel and veterans by using patriotic messages and fomenting political divisions,” The Wall Street Journal reported then.

“Several of the pages Mr. Goldsmith has studied expressly catered to conservative audiences and frequently promoted divisive memes depicting President Trump favorably on issues involving veterans, illegal immigration and the National Football League,” the Journal reported.

Going back to the 2016 presidential election, Russian internet trolls and Kremlin-aligned webpages targeted active-military members and veterans with conservative-leaning disinformation campaigns.

An Oxford University study found that Russian-controlled accounts on Facebook and Twitter were “reading and sharing articles on conservative political thought, articles on right-wing politics in Europe and writing touting various conspiracy theories,” The Washington Post reported in 2017.

“The kind of information shared by and with veterans and active-duty personnel span a wide range, with liberal political content also common, though not as common as conservative political content,” according to the Post. “The online military community, the researchers found, also shared links about sustainable agriculture, mental health issues such as addiction, and conspiracy theories.”