The Capitol Hill riots have laid bare the civil war raging within the veterans community.
When a pro-Trump mob assaulted Congress to prevent President-elect Joe Biden from being certified as the next commander in chief, veterans were on both sides of the melee.
Ashli Babbitt, who had served in the Air Force, was shot and killed by police. Video posted online appears to show her attempting to crawl through a broken window to gain access to the Speaker’s Lobby in the Capitol Building.
Separately, Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer, died on Jan. 7 after reportedly being hit with a fire extinguisher. Sicknick served in the New Jersey Air National Guard from 1997 to 2003 and left the service as a staff sergeant.
Both Babbitt and Sicknick had served in security forces units – the Air Force’s equivalent of military police.
The attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill is a direct result of the political warfare that has engulfed the country for decades – and has turned veterans into foot soldiers for the new order.
Babbitt is not the only veteran who took part in the burning down of the Reichstag — excuse me — the storming of Capitol Hill. A Washington, D.C., police officer posted on Facebook that service members and off-duty police officers were among the pro-Trump rioters and they tried to use their identification badges to get into the Capitol building, according to Politico.
Cyber security researcher John Scott-Railton tweeted that he has identified another military veteran, who was seen on the Senate floor while wearing his unit patches, plate carriers, and holding flex cuffs, as retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock, Jr. Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker interviewed Brock, who confirmed he is the man pictured on the Senate floor.
When asked if the Defense Department is investigating whether any of its personnel took part in the riot, a Pentagon spokesperson referred Task & Purpose to the individual military branches.
It’s true that many veterans have been sucked into the abyss of QAnon conspiracy theories, but the real conflict dividing veterans is not about politics, said Kristofer Goldsmith, who served in the Army during the Iraq war is now the founder and president of High Ground Veterans Advocacy.
“It’s between law-abiding citizens – those enforcing the law – and those radicals who are in violation of it; who are seeking to destroy democracy, quite literally,” Goldsmith told Task & Purpose.
One major source of fuel for the conflagration is disinformation: Deliberate lies that President Donald Trump and other prominent Americans spread in order to use veterans’ patriotism as a weapon against democracy, he said.
“Trump is trying to make the Republican Party the fascist party of the United States and two veterans losing their lives are a direct result of that,” Goldsmith said.
Former Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer suggested that a general ignorance about how government works could be another reason for the division among veterans.
The veterans community mirrors society in general, and now that schools have stopped teaching civics, an entire generation of young Americans simply don’t understand how they can participate in democracy, said Spencer, who was fired by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper for trying to secretly negotiate a way for Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher to keep his trident.
“I think that really is part of the frustration and the issue,” Spencer said. “I listen to why everyone is pissed off and I go: Fine; you’re pissed off, but what are you going to do about it? Breaking a window and invading the inner-sanctum of democracy in a violent manner – what does that accomplish at the end of the day? It’s a crying shame is the bottom line.”
That aside, there can be no question that Trump has inspired strong emotions both for and against him among the veterans community.
While the president has earned the unquestioned loyalty of many current and former service members by pledging to rebuild the military and increasing the Pentagon’s budget, other veterans have accused Trump of being authoritarian.
When asked whether Trump is responsible for inciting the Capitol Hill riots, Spencer said he is a firm believer in leadership and the captain of a ship is responsible for everything that happens, regardless of the circumstances.
“I didn’t know the man,” Spencer said of the president. “I did vote for him. Jim Mattis asked me to come on board as Navy secretary. I had maybe 20 interactions with the man and got to see his thought process – as convoluted in some cases as it may be – and I never in my wildest projections ever thought we would end up where we ended up two days ago.”
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.
Featured image: An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo.