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U.S. military veterans generally don't embrace extremism, a new survey shows

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

How many people with extremist views have ties to the military? The National Guard may have missed the signs that a suspected leaker of highly classified intelligence info, Jack Teixeira, was stockpiling guns and posting on social media about mass killings. And the Pentagon last week admitted it has not implemented most of a plan meant to counter extremism in the ranks.

Despite those kinds of headlines, there is better news about veterans. NPR's Quil Lawrence tells us about a new nationwide survey that suggests people who have left military service generally don't embrace extremism on either the left or the right.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Stories about veterans and extremism regularly make the news, like the recent guilty plea by a U.S. Marine for breaking into the Capitol on January 6. Initial reports suggested huge numbers of veterans in that mob. The real number turned out much lower, says Todd Helmus with the Rand Corporation.

TODD HELMUS: Those initial reports spurred a lot of fear and concern about the risk of veterans, but no one's actually looked at the numbers.

LAWRENCE: Helmus and his colleagues did and were encouraged by what they found in a survey of about 1,000 veterans nationwide, says fellow researcher Ryan Brown.

RYAN BROWN: Some examples of that - the general public - 7% support for white supremacists and less than 1% support for white supremacists among veterans.

LAWRENCE: Nine percent of the general public has a positive view of the far-right Proud Boys, compared to just 4% of veterans. The vast majority of deadly political violence in America comes from the far right, but Rand also surveyed views about antifa. About 10% of the general public say they support the far-left movement. Only 5.5% of veterans said they support antifa. Violent extremist groups do target veterans for their skill set, Brown says.

BROWN: Vets, on average, seem to be very resilient to those efforts. And so I think that some of the characteristics that draw you to serve your country will help protect against forces that would undermine your country.

LAWRENCE: Brown and Helmus are not veterans. They were pleasantly surprised by the findings. U.S. Marine vet Joe Plenzler was not surprised.

JOE PLENZLER: If veterans are overrepresented in the January 6 mob, it's important to remember that they're also overrepresented in the halls of Congress. They're overrepresented in state legislatures. They're overrepresented in town councils. So, you know, I think when people put their hand in the air and swear to support and defend the Constitution, that oath doesn't end when we leave the Department of Defense.

LAWRENCE: Plenzler is on the board of a group called We the Veterans. They recruit vets to fill the nationwide shortage of election poll workers. Ellen Gustafson co-founded that group.

ELLEN GUSTAFSON: We had a story from a Vietnam veteran in New Jersey who said he had two experiences that were kind of difficult as a poll worker at his polling location - one where a guy walked in with a Biden hat and another where a guy walked in with a red Make America Great Again hat. He told both of them, you know, politely to take them off, and they did without incident.

LAWRENCE: She says, when that Vietnam vet asked the men to take off their political hats, he was wearing a 101st Airborne hat, which is not political. And that's the point.

GUSTAFSON: There's a lot of people in America who are looking at our military and veteran community as, you know, woke. And then in another media silo, you could easily take away that our military is full of white supremacists. And as a military spouse who lives in this community, I know that not to be true because, as we believe, veterans, you know, in many ways should know better and had the experience as Americans working across a lot of different backgrounds to just get the job done for our country.

LAWRENCE: The Rand researchers stress their report is just a start - just a survey - but they're optimistic with what they've learned so far.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.