Cover: Veteran Narratives of Support for Extremist Groups and Beliefs

Veteran Narratives of Support for Extremist Groups and Beliefs

Results from Interviews with Members of a Nationally Representative Survey of the U.S. Veteran Community

Published Apr 9, 2024

by Ryan Andrew Brown, Todd C. Helmus, Rajeev Ramchand

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Research Questions

  1. How do veterans describe their support for extremist groups or causes and detail their military experiences, civilian experiences, and political beliefs?
  2. How many of the survey participants who had previously expressed support for one or more extremist groups continued to endorse such groups?
  3. How might veterans' experiences in the military and then transitioning to civilian life shape their political and social beliefs?

The report examines how U.S. military veterans describe their endorsement of extremist beliefs, their experiences in the military and in transition to veteran status, and their narratives of the path to their current political and ideological beliefs and perspectives. The authors conducted follow-up interviews in 2023 with military veterans who had previously indicated support for one or more extremist groups or beliefs on a 2022 survey to understand the drivers and patterns of extremism among veterans based on their experiences in and out of the service. The purpose of this effort was to better understand the ideology that undergirded their original support and to use their responses as a means of further exploring their political viewpoints. This report details the findings from these interviews, which revealed the considerable presence of negative and traumatic life events for interviewees while in the military and afterward while adapting to civilian life. Coupled with narratives of becoming involved in extremist ideas and groups, these narratives point to several possible implications for policy and practice, which in turn will require further research to design, test, and calibrate.

Key Findings

  • Almost all participants who had supported the Proud Boys in the 2022 survey denied such support in the 2023 interviews, while nearly all the participants who affirmed support for the Great Replacement on the survey believed that the Democratic Party was attempting to purchase votes through lax immigration policies.
  • Many participants affirmed support for the potential need for political violence, although the responses suggested that none was intent on acting on such support.
  • Roughly three-quarters of interviewees reported a negative or traumatic life event while in the military, including from interpersonal conflict (often leading to discharge), combat trauma, and physical or sexual abuse.
  • Some respondents described difficulties with the transition from military to civilian life, including missing the pace and camaraderie of military life, having no resources, not knowing where to turn for help or support, struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder or depression, and even experiencing homelessness and becoming imprisoned.
  • Some respondents provided narratives of life experiences that helped push them toward more-extreme political viewpoints, although drawing causal connections in the current interview-based study is difficult.
  • Some interviewees explained how they were socialized into their current ideological viewpoints through friends or family and/or how their social circles provide support and encouragement for radical beliefs and support of radical groups.
  • Many respondents mentioned specific media sources, social media platforms, and podcasters or political influencers that helped shape their viewpoints.

Recommendations

  • Further survey and interview-based research should draw more conclusive links between military and veteran transition experiences and outcomes related to extremism.
  • Support for veteran transition programs and services should continue and be prioritized.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was made possible by a generous gift from Daniel J. Epstein through the Epstein Family Foundation. This research was conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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