Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Filling the void: For some veterans, militias offer a misguided sense of purpose | Opinion

Upon leaving the battlefield, former soldiers may yearn to recapture the same sense of mission. For some, the dramatic narratives surrounding extremism and conspiracy theories can be hard to resist.

Although veterans make up about 7% of the population, roughly 12% of the nearly 700 people charged in federal cases for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection have military ties.
Although veterans make up about 7% of the population, roughly 12% of the nearly 700 people charged in federal cases for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection have military ties.Read moreSamuel Corum / MCT

Theodore Kosin, a 33-year-old from Bucks County, claims he joined a militia without ever intending to. When he was honorably discharged from the Army in 2013, after two tours in Afghanistan, he felt lost. “I tried a bunch of different routes to get that camaraderie back,” he told me this fall.

Then, around January 2020, Kosin opened a browser on his computer looking for a group to be a part of to fill the void. “I searched for ‘disaster response,’” Kosin said in a recent interview. “And they popped up.”

“They” are the Three Percenters Original in Pennsylvania — a far-right antigovernment militia. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, members of the Three Percenters movement compare today’s U.S. government to the British government before the American Revolution (which they believe, without proof, that 3% of the colonialist population fought). Along with the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters are among the most prominent groups in the militia world.

» READ MORE: QAnon is the latest in a long line of conspiracy theories that feed on hatred and inspire violence. Can the U.S. uproot these movements?

To be sure, only a fraction of the millions of current and former service members choose to join militias or fall into the rabbit holes of online radicalization. Nevertheless, that militias have a certain allure for veterans at all is troubling enough to military officials that in February Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin instructed all commanding officers to conduct a one-day “stand-down” to discuss “extremism in the ranks.”

Veterans have long faced major hurdles when reintegrating into civilian life. But at a time in U.S. history that is marred by ”deaths of despair” and online extremism, some veterans find purpose in harmful behaviors — and camaraderie in militia groups and online extremist forums. These new threats to veterans, and the nation, were on full display in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

According to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, 12% of the nearly 700 people charged in federal cases for their involvement in the insurrection have military ties — compared with 7% of the population. Multiple Pennsylvania veterans are among those charged, including a 28-year-old Army Ranger who was deployed in Afghanistan and an 80-year-old Vietnam vet.

The overrepresentation of veterans in the Jan. 6 insurrection deserves an exploration. But for many veterans, as well as those who work with service members and observers of extremist movements, the statistic isn’t surprising.

All enemies, foreign and domestic

The militia side of the Three Percenters showed itself to Kosin, by then the group’s logistics officer, in full glory in the summer of 2020. He recalls that his superiors tasked him with drafting “contingency plans for if Biden declares martial law.” He said he told his peers that the militia won’t stand a chance against armed forces, but didn’t leave the group.

His breaking point came after his wife, a nurse, got the COVID-19 vaccine. The couple were barraged with messages from group members. Kosin recalled being told: “You’re a traitor. I can’t believe you got the vaccine. You’re going to be Biden’s puppet. You’re going to die.”

Watching his wife being treated so poorly “was the final straw for me,” Kosin said.

Once Kosin left the Three Percenters, he, along with another former member, established a new group called Proud American Patriot Network. Kosin has since become a leading voice opposing mask mandates in the Central Bucks School District. He said his new organization has nothing to do with the Three Percenters or militias, and these days he downplays his relationship to right-wing extremist groups. For example, he says that he “doesn’t condone” what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and that those involved should be punished, but he rejects the term insurrection.

» READ MORE: A new Central Bucks School Board met, but sharp divisions persist: ‘This room has been filled with hate’

What’s clear is that Kosin’s group is comfortable as standard-bearers of the right at the heart of the culture war. Recently, his organization announced the creation of the “Kyle Rittenhouse Scholarship,” an essay competition for high schoolers named for the teenager who killed two left-wing protesters and shot a third in Kenosha, Wis., in summer 2020. To many observers, Rittenhouse embodies the militia mentality: that armed civilians should be ready at a moment’s notice to use violence. The website for Kosin’s group also lists more than 200 “woke companies” to boycott, claiming they are part of a “fascistic cartel” working to “weaken election laws” by opposing proposals around the nation that would restrict voting.

There is a through-line from the Army to the militia to Kosin’s current crusade against mask mandates: All three seem to be perceived by him as engaged in a grand fight against tyranny — whether by exporting democracy to a foreign country, planning for the rise of a tyrannical government, or opposing a public health measure as a tyrannical effort to rob Americans of their freedoms of personal choice.

Purpose overseas, despair at home

Unlike Kosin, Sgt. Dennis Miller never joined a militia. But he understands how some veterans find it enticing. “When you live a life that has a sense of purpose,” Miller, a Philadelphia native who served in the Marines for 13 years, told me, “when you’ve done things that had purpose and suddenly you aren’t doing that, you feel like you need to find something to direct that towards.”

The main challenge is that real life is mundane. It’s difficult to compete with the purpose that the narratives around militias and conspiracy theories provide.

The conspiracy-theory researcher known as Travis View, the pseudonym of Logan Strain — a cohost of the QAnon Anonymous podcast — told me he can imagine that movements like QAnon offer believers a similar sense of mission that the military provides. He describes it as “a sense that you are fighting something great and evil and that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”

“If you genuinely believe the tenets of QAnon, that the establishment elite are part of a human trafficking ring, you can imagine that by being part of that, you are helping far more children than if you were to volunteer for a local school or day care,” View said.

The conspiracy theory or militia gets even more compelling when it is led by ex-service members. Among the leading promoters of both QAnon and COVID-19 denialism is the disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been amassing an “army of digital soldiers.”

Developing a contingency plan to fend off a tyrannical government or storming the U.S. Capitol is more exciting than volunteering in the community. So is convincing yourself that a school district’s public health response to a pandemic is a form of tyranny — and thus opposition serves some higher cause.

A way out?

Most veterans find purpose in civilian life, and many take their sense of mission to better their communities. Miller, for example, found a new mission in civilian life by dedicating himself to providing services to other veterans. He founded the Greater Philadelphia Area Veteran Chamber of Commerce, which promotes entrepreneurship among veterans, and he serves as the chair of the board of the Military Assistance Project, which offers pro-bono legal aid.

When fighting tyranny, real or imagined, is so integral to one’s sense of self, it’s extremely hard to break the spell. But there are small changes in society that can help.

For View, the key to preventing radicalization is making sure that individuals who show signs of interest in conspiracy theories remain offline: “Get them away from the computer in any way you can and help them find something else that can have some sense of entertainment and interest and meaning.”

Even Kosin’s militia origin story started with a browser.

» READ MORE: Veterans need better access to mental health care. Here’s how that can happen l Opinion

But even without the risk of getting involved in militias, Dr. Leah Blain, a clinical psychologist and the clinical director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to push people to be more engaged in what the experience of service is actually like.

“It’s really striking how we have been a nation of peace and a military at war,” Blain said. “There’s never been conflicts that were as disconnected from the average civilian experience as the Iraq and Afghanistan War.” She recommends that civilians try to learn more about the post-9/11 conflicts. “I don’t mean that in a political way. I mean that in an everyday sense of: What does it look like to be deployed in these environments?”

Looking back, Kosin doesn’t deny the sense of gratification he got from being part of the Three Percenters. “At least they understood the jargon. … I didn’t have to think about what I was saying. I could just say it.”

The forces of loneliness and despair are deep and structural in contemporary society. The challenges of providing services for veterans — as well as the stigma around seeking help — are also key drivers of social isolation. But perhaps, for at least a few, listening can be one last off-ramp before radicalization.