Former National Guard Chris Buckley left the Army with a sense of anger. He felt that the rest of the world did not understand the gravity of what he had been through–the constant pain of a back injury after a training incident in Kentucky & the grief and rage directed at people on the other side of the world who took the life of his best friend Daniel, who served with him in Afghanistan. These all were pent up in a bottle without anywhere to go at one point.
After he retired from service, Buckley faced problems with his family. He had opioid addiction that started from his injury and struggled to find purpose in his civilian life.
“If you can name it, I was fighting the demon,” Buckley says.
That is why he was hooked when Buckley connected with a Navy veteran who appeared to understand his struggles. He met the other veteran from a Facebook page about America, Christianity, and patriotism–things that Buckley related to.
During his sabbatical, he noticed the group was filled with other veterans. Soon enough, his Navy friend revealed that the group was part of a larger community, the Ku Klux Klan and that his friend was a Klansman.
Despite the revelation, Buckley was unfazed. He shared how he related to most of his newly found community and their ideals. He added that he liked the “pro-America, pro-Constitution” vibe of it all and the rage perpetuating from the group. After meeting some members in person, Buckley realized that his military background would serve him well in his newly found circle.
“I’d been to combat. I knew how to shoot, move, and communicate, lead a team through combat exercises and scenarios, train them to use their rifles, train them to use their pistols, live-fire exercises. And that’s what we were doing.”
When Buckley joined the Klan in 2014, the group was already transitioning to become an organized armed force.
“They’re doing away with the ‘let’s protest in public with pointy hats and robes,’” Buckley says. “The KKK is shifting towards a more militia-style environment.”
A study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism revealed that nearly half of extremists with military backgrounds come from organized militias or embraced anti-government sentiment. Militia-style organizations prize recruits with military backgrounds.
“It comes down to two basic things,” Associate Professor of Sociology at Chapman University Peter Simi said. “One is skills and training, leadership, munitions training, explosives, all that stuff. And then two is status.”
Since the Vietnam War, the loss of structure and meaning has plagued many veterans after leaving the military. Combine this with trauma and a sense of abandonment, and you will get a group of highly skilled civilians left vulnerable to extremism, as scholars have said.
Despite growing efforts to address these issues among veterans and the military, extremist organizations continue to exploit this vulnerability.
“They recognize that veterans are looking for something,” a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University studying militias, Amy Cooter, said. “It’s an easy way for them to grow their ranks.”
These organizations that fear armed confrontation with authorities highly value military veterans who can share their combat expertise. In fact, during the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers used a stack formation, an infantry tactic, as they entered the building.
Simi, as well as other experts, noted that having former service members among the ranks also boosts the credibility of a group, referring to how veterans are some of the most prestigious groups in America.
“Veterans give them a degree of legitimacy. It makes them look like they’re trained and makes them look like they’re really being patriotic.”
In 2015, Buckley’s wife gave him an ultimatum: to choose between her and their son or having drugs and the KKK. He chose the latter and left the group with the help of a former extremist named Arno Michaelis, a recovered Nazi-skinhead who was now a book author and a Buddhist.
Now, Buckley works with Parents For Peace, a nonprofit public health organization that supports families to prevent or bring back loved ones who joined extremist groups. It was a long journey for Buckley to get off his drug addiction and hatred for Muslims, but he is now certainly on the right path.
“I was looking for something to be a part of something,” Buckley says. “I needed a mission.” He added that most veterans suffer from loss of a mission, a community, and meaning.
Buckley also mentioned that many veterans who experience trauma during service often face a stigma that prevents them from seeking help.
“Some of the more traditional venues that could be provided through the VA (Veterans Administration) or other kinds of official military associations are seen as soft, in a way that kind of undermines the very notion of masculinity that the military relies on,” Cooter said.
According to Buckley, the military should take a more proactive approach to combat the vulnerability of service members to radicalization. In the same manner as to how troops are trained to be deployed abroad, so should soldiers be prepared for the struggles that await them after they leave active duty, he said.