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Following Capitol Siege, Veterans Hope For More Deradicalization Programs

NOEL KING, HOST:

Authorities have identified a number of military veterans who took part in the siege on Capitol Hill. And while veterans groups are aware of extremism in their ranks, they don't have many resources to tackle this issue head-on. Here's Steve Walsh with member station KPBS.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Thirty-five-year-old Ashli Babbitt was an Air Force veteran from San Diego. She was killed by police as she tried to push deeper into the Capitol on January 6. Her social media is a mix of QAnon conspiracies and posts falsely claiming that the election was stolen. In one video, the avidly pro-Trump Babbitt segued from immigration to California politicians as she drove.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLI BABBITT: I am so sick of these politicians in this [expletive] state. I can't take it anymore. They're all worried about what Trump is doing. How about we worry about what the hell you're doing?

WALSH: The VA and major veterans groups have condemned the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but some groups worry that vets are being unfairly singled out. John Raughter is the spokesman for the American Legion.

JOHN RAUGHTER: The radicalization among certain fringe elements - we don't see it as more of a problem for veterans as America in general.

WALSH: The American Legion has a program to confront suicide among veterans. They even have Legion posts inside prisons to help rehabilitate veterans. They don't have similar programs to confront extremism directly, even though days before the insurrection, a San Diego newspaper uncovered a local post commander who boasted about being a member of the far-right group the Proud Boys. Pete Simi is a professor on violent extremism at Chapman University. He says veterans groups are just one small part of a broader nationwide crisis.

PETE SIMI: We're way behind the eight ball. I mean, we just have not dealt with this problem in a meaningful way. We don't have a national strategy, and state and local resources aren't there.

WALSH: Simi says the number of hate groups spiked during the Obama administration.

SIMI: There was a major resurgence after Obama's election in '08, and there was a number of different factors, not unlike what we see today, that were helping propel that. And we did nothing. We did - in fact, we denied that it was a problem.

WALSH: Much of the research into radicalizing people who have taken up violent extremism centers around Islamic extremism, Simi says.

SIMI: And as far as specific intervention programs designed specifically for veterans, it's just - it's not there.

WALSH: Tony McAleer, author of "The Cure For Hate," says vets have long been a target of extremist groups.

TONY MCALEER: I can see how perhaps people get manipulated by their patriotism, you know, and duped into doing things that, you know - when they take a step back - going, you know, I can't believe I did that.

WALSH: McAleer, a former neo-Nazi and a Canadian vet, counsels people trying to leave extremist groups. He says some veterans of recent wars come back desensitized to other cultures after being put into situations where they cannot always tell friend from foe.

MCALEER: You have to dehumanize other human beings. You know, to prepare people for violence, you have to dehumanize the target first.

WALSH: Nearly a decade ago, McAleer also helped found Life After Hate, which now has a federal grant to help those trying to leave violent extremist groups. Spokesman Dimitrios Kalantzis says the difference between now and a decade ago is that people are speaking more openly about the threat of domestic radical extremism.

DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS: People will hopefully - more people will get the help they need before they become radicalized to violence, before they actually take that last and final step.

WALSH: In the wake of the siege of the Capitol and as awareness grows, there is a hope that veterans groups will be more openly involved themselves into radicalization programs. After all, these are the groups that veterans often turn to first for help.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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