Extremist Groups Prey on Military Veterans: Expert

Several high-profile cases involving San Diegans rioting in D.C. share a common thread: they're all veterans

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A troubling trend is beginning to surface: A significant number of those now facing criminal charges for storming the Capitol, once wore a military uniform.

A militia researcher says many of the groups seen rioting in D.C. intentionally prey on military personnel.

By now, you've probably seen the video showing rioters trying to bash their way into the House Chambers. At the far right of the screen, you see 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt from Ocean Beach, trying to climb through the broken glass when Capitol police shoot. The Trump supporter and Air Force veteran died at the hospital.

"They were kind of swept up in the moment,” says Jon Rice, attorney for Alex Smith.

In a federal courtroom Thursday afternoon, prosecutors referenced a social media photo showing Smith, 33, from Coronado inside the Capitol. The Army veteran who served in Iraq now faces federal charges for violent, unlawful entry into the restricted federal building.

And now Escondido American Legion commander Mick Sobczak has been booted out of the American Legion for posting social media posts showing him in D.C.

These posts obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and since deleted, show Sobczak wearing attire affiliated with The Proud Boys, a designated hate group.       

In one post, Sobczak shows a tire thumper he claims he swiped from an Antifa member, and brags the blood on those gloves isn't his own.

The legion post in Escondido tells NBC 7 a trial process is underway to remove Sobczak as commander.

In the meantime, the American Legion Department of California told NBC 7 the organization has stripped Sobczak of his national titles. The vice commander sent a statement saying part:

"When the scenario turns to hate, The American Legion cannot stand silent…It should be clear that The American Legion has no room for hate in its membership, nor will we silently tolerate hate in any form."

Calls and messages to Sobczak were not returned.

Babbitt, Smith, and Sobzak - all tied to the insurrection or riots that proceeded it. All from the San Diego area. All veterans.

An NPR analysis found nearly 1 in 5 people charged over their breach of the U.S. Capitol appear to have a military background. That's 20%. Keep in mind, only 7% of all American adults are military veterans.

"Extremist groups are intentionally trying to recruit people who are former military,” says American University professor Carolyn Gallaher, Ph.D.

Gallaher says veterans are especially vulnerable to recruitment from these groups, particularly those who have served overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan as these veterans often struggle to assimilate back into society, and miss the comradery they felt with their brothers and sisters in uniform.

Gallaher says militia and extremist groups intentionally mimic this type of brotherhood, and sense of belonging.

"A lot of these groups,” says Gallaher. “When they bring people in, they make things worse for them.”

Unfortunately, Gallaher says these groups often exploit that desire for brotherhood, to lead veterans to violence, pointing to what happened in D.C.

"People who served their country and maybe were literally in the line of fire,” says Gallaher. “Participated in the insurrection of the very country they were fighting for and may now spend time in prison. That's not an outcome that most people would want for their veterans."

More than 240,000 veterans live in San Diego County. More than 1 in every 10 San Diegans is a veteran.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security put out a report for law enforcement agencies warning right-wing extremists were recruiting veterans to their ranks. But after political backlash from Republicans and the American Legion, DHS rescinded that report and disbanded the office that published it.

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