The Pentagon is investigating extremism in the military. Here’s how bad the problem isDozens of current and former service members spoke to Fox News about extremism within the ranks
By Ethan Barton , Teny Sahakian - Apr 03, 2022 - The Pentagon’s most recent search for extremists within the ranks was just the latest failure to find evidence that the military is a breeding ground for violent radicals, a Fox News review has found.
The Department of Defense identified fewer than 100 instances of confirmed extremist activity in 2021, the Pentagon reported in December. Despite significant rhetoric from Democrats, media pundits and activists, the finding was unsurprising to more than 30 current and former service members who spoke with Fox News.
"I noticed zero extremism during my time in the military," Matthew Griffin, a former Army Ranger, told Fox News. "None. Didn't witness it at all."
Each service member echoed similar remarks, explicitly saying they’d never seen any extremist behavior.
The service members Fox News interviewed ranged from cadet to major. They spanned five branches and the political spectrum, and their service dates as far back as 1980.
Being unable to find even 100 extremists in the military "is a success story and shows that extremism is not a large problem," a former command sergeant major said.
Many said the service would even stamp out extremism since it would harm unit cohesion – a critical component to combat effectiveness across the branches. They also told Fox News that the military serves as a sort of melting pot that exposes recruits to unfamiliar cultures and people.
"Even if you are kind of a piece of s--t, you have to be able to depend on the people with you or else you'll die or get hurt real bad," Jariko Denman, a retired Army Ranger, told Fox News. "All of the kind of ignorance that leads to extremist behavior, it's squashed because you're immersed in all these other cultures, you're immersed with all these other types of people."
They also said that senior officers are aware that a widespread issue doesn’t exist, but won’t push back because they’re more concerned with falling in line to score promotions.
Still, activists and others have argued that even a few extremists with military training could create a massive risk. They frequently point to the Oklahoma City bomber, a veteran who killed more than 150 people, including children.
The Pentagon, along with its report on extremists in the military, provided updated guidance on identifying and handling extremists within the ranks.
"If someone had that kind of behavior that they exhibited and acted on or something, they would not last," one soldier who retired as a sergeant major with Special Forces after 27 years in the Army told Fox News. "There's so many checks and balances in the military that it’d really be hard to hide those kind of feelings."
Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale told Fox News in an emailed statement: "The overwhelming majority of those who serve our nation in uniform and their civilian colleagues do so with great honor and integrity, upholding our core military values and oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution."
"However, it only takes a few people to have an outsized effect on troop morale and how the military is perceived by the nation they serve," the statement continued. "We owe our people an environment that is free from prohibited extremist activities. We also owe our nation a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy."
Given that investigations have repeatedly failed to prove a systemic problem, many service members told Fox News that dedicating significant time to pursuing extremists would ultimately take away from combat readiness.
The Pentagon and outside investigators alike have sought to identify extremists among the ranks, but none have turned up more than a handful out of the 2.1 million active duty service members, Fox News’ review found.
After DOD reported in 2018 that just 18 service members had been disciplined or discharged for extremist activity over a five-year period, critics said the Pentagon wasn’t looking hard enough.
"They always say the numbers are small, and because of that, it is not a priority," Carter Smith, a 30-year Army criminal investigator, told The New York Times in 2019. "So every year they get a report based on what they were never looking for."
He said the military needed to establish a task force to monitor extremist networks.
The 2021 DOD report boasted improvements to its process for catching extremists within the ranks before indicating that it found less than 100 instances.
The report also said the number of potentially violent radicals has increased over time. But that claim is impossible to verify since the Pentagon didn’t provide an exact figure or even indicate whether it found more than it did in 2018.
Even with exhaustive investigations, there’s no evidence that more extremists in the military would be uncovered.
Frontline and ProPublica partnered on a triple-byline news investigation in 2018. The three reporters conducted dozens of interviews, combed through 250,000 confidential messages and reviewed social media and other internet posts.
All told, they identified six people with military ties in Atomwaffen, an anti-government white supremacist group. Three were employed by the Army or Navy at the time, and the other three were veterans.
Additionally, a University of Maryland team reported that from 1990 through 2021, "461 individuals with U.S. military backgrounds committed criminal acts that were motivated by their political, economic, social, or religious goals."
But it noted that 120 of those – or about one-quarter – were charged for breaching the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. The report also pointed out that those with military background made up less than 12% of the people charged with crimes related to extremism over the 31-year period.
"Scholars are generally in agreement that there is no single profile of an extremist," the report said.
Further, nearly 84% of the 461 identified were no longer in the military when they committed a criminal act of extremism, according to the University of Maryland report. Almost 40% had left the service 15 or more years before they were arrested for extremism, while just over 15% were out for two or fewer years.
Meanwhile, the head of the Pentagon’s anti-extremism working group, Bishop Garrison, said supporting former President Trump is supporting racism and extremism, the Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported.
Critics have argued that even a small number of extremists with military experience could pose a significant threat.
"The numbers might be small, but they are like a drop of cyanide in your drink," Carter told The New York Times in 2019. "They can do a lot of damage."
The University of Maryland team determined that extremists with military backgrounds killed 314 people over the 31-year period. More than half were from a single event.
The notorious Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was a decorated Gulf War veteran who was radicalized before joining the Army.
About four years after he was honorably discharged, McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168, including 19 children, and injuring hundreds more.
Other high-profile extremists have also had military ties, including Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam, Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and White Patriot Party leader Frazier Glenn Miller.
Atomwaffen founder Brandon Russell was serving in Florida’s National Guard when he was arrested in 2017 after authorities found a stash of explosives, including the same substance McVeigh used.
Russell, who kept a framed picture of McVeigh on his dresser, according to the Department of Justice, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Meanwhile, nearly one-quarter of troops polled in a Military Times survey said they witnessed white nationalism within the ranks, though it’s unclear how that phrase was defined. Subsequent surveys by the publication reported similar findings.
Several service members told Fox News they may have witnessed racism or bigotry among rookies. But they said that was exclusively among new recruits who hailed from hometowns with little diversity and had little exposure to other groups of people.
"They're going to carry those opinions with them because it's what they know," Denman said. "Once they were in the military and they could actually see people from other cultures and backgrounds and all these things, they’re like, ‘Oh, that was dumb.’"
Advocates have also said that extremist groups actively try recruiting veterans. Guidance DOD released alongside its 2021 report called for a program to help service members avoid such recruitment as they transition out of the military.
Every service member Fox News interviewed for this story – on and off the record – said they never witnessed extremism during their time in the military.
"Over three decades in the military, I never saw this as an issue," an Army veteran who did four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan said.
Griffin added: "I think the media is definitely exacerbating this issue. They had their hypothesis that the military is full of extremists and they're willing to go down on the ship just to state so."
Denman, whose grandfathers, father and older brother were all in the military, said the charge is "absolutely not fair, and it sheds a really piss poor light on the military as a whole."
"Seeing all these people of all walks of life – different races, different creeds, different sexual orientations – all this doing great things together, and then to have our government come in and say ‘the military has an extremism problem,’ it's a slap in the face," Denman continued. "It's an insult to all those people that are out there doing the right thing."
Still, Denman, as well as an active duty Navy officer said they felt it was important to ensure extremism wasn’t a problem.
"We all are better served when we have sort of a middle of the road kind of viewpoint about things," the officer said. "Anybody who's polarized is probably not healthy for our democracy."
But many service members said focusing on something they believe isn’t an issue harms combat readiness since it takes up time officers could spend preparing troops for battle.
"If we burden the military leadership with so much other issues, we are really taking away from what the military is there for. That's to defend our borders and to execute American policy," a former Special Forces sergeant, whose son is in the Army, told Fox News.
Weeks before the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, Tyler Allcorn, a former Green Beret running for Congress in Colorado as a Republican told Fox News: "We need to spend less time on these witch hunts targeting our own soldiers and spending more time focused on strategic threats like China and Russia and any others that are threatening our country."
"If Joe Biden had put this much time into developing an exit strategy for Afghanistan than he does targeting our own soldiers … then maybe the 13 service members who lost their lives back in that country would be alive today," Allcorn added.
Breasseale, the Pentagon spokesman, said in his statement to Fox News: "While it may be the opinion of a few that one day of training is too much, the Department knows that the training was necessary and time well spent. We pride ourselves on being a military that can do many things at once."
Many service members told Fox News they believed senior leadership, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, knew extremism wasn’t a systemic issue, but were too afraid to oppose that narrative.
"I believe Austin and Milley went along whole heartedly," the former command sergeant major said, noting how Milley told Congress he wanted to understand "white rage."
Others said senior officers care more about advancing their careers. As a result, the service members said, those officers won’t press against their superiors when they see bad orders.
"There is an attempt to politicize our military to weed out officers who don't buy hook, line and sinker into this new age modernity," the four-tour Army veteran said. Senior officers "lack the moral courage to say, ‘Hey boss, that's really stupid.’"
Nickaylah Sampson, who dropped out of West Point last year, said she "met officers firsthand just who flat out told me the only way to make rank is by fulfilling the wants of the officers ahead of you no matter what it is."
A Special Operations Central deputy commander argued that this growing culture caused the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, Fox News previously reported.
"When you get in that general officer area, you don't want to rock the boat with whoever is currently in office or who you think will be in office," Denman, who stressed his hate for officers, told Fox News. The military will "never do things for the benefit of a particular political party, but I do think that a lot of the decisions are made or not made by a lot of the higher-level brass like generals with politics in mind."
Many service members also saw the hunt for extremists as politically unbalanced, disproportionately targeting the right while ignoring left-wing extremists. Last year, Austin ordered a stand-down to discuss extremism, but gave commanders discretion in how to handle it.
An active duty special operations officer told Fox News that her commander presented a slide show during the stand-down that depicted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Osama bin Laden and the QAnon Shaman – the shirtless, horn-bearing Capitol rioter.
"I immediately was like, ‘OK, this is politicized to me, because if you're going to put one end of the political spectrum up against Osama bin Laden, then why don't you put someone up against the left end of the political spectrum?’" the service member said. She suggested showing a rioter from the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations burning down a building.
The DOD’s 2021 guidance also tightened some restrictions and forbid service members from liking or sharing extremist content on social media.
"If the American government is going to go and surveil the social media accounts of over two million military patriots and heroes for extremism, then I think they should also monitor the social media accounts of Joe Biden's administration, Nancy Pelosi and probably all the Democrats in Congress," Allcorn told Fox News. "I guarantee you're going to find more than a hundred extremists in that group."