Convicted Oath Keeper Leader Preyed on Veterans Looking for Meaning After Service

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Members of the Oath Keepersat the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy after two months of trial and deliberations, and the picture that emerged is of a man who wrapped himself and his group in patriotism to lure veterans to his anti-government cause.

Rhodes, who served in the Army for less than three years in the 1980s, tapped into former military members' search for belonging after service and used issues such as high veteran suicide rates as justification as he spent years building up Oath Keeper followers, according to information from the trial and interviews with experts and those who knew him.

Some of those veterans would eventually follow him to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, for an assault on the Capitol to keep former President Donald Trump in power -- an attack that would put Rhodes on an historical short list of veterans convicted of seditious conspiracy against the U.S. government and lead some of his veteran followers to convictions.

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    "This is a group that -- since their inception -- has attempted to wrap themselves in the flag," Jon Lewis, a research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told Military.com in an interview Wednesday. "And has explicitly sought to recruit members of the military, veterans, law enforcement and first responders into this movement that is explicitly designed with the intent to come into conflict that they view as inevitable with the federal government."

    Rhodes was the only veteran among the Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy, though his civilian co-conspirator and Florida chapter leader, Kelly Meggs, was also convicted of the crime. Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, all veterans, were found guilty of the lesser crime of obstruction of an official proceeding. All four veterans were also convicted of a smattering of felonies related to Jan. 6.

    A clear thread emerged throughout the trial, which included details about an armed "quick reaction force" lurking in suburban Virginia and quasi-military tactics in and around the Capitol building.

    It showed a militia head -- one with minimal military experience himself -- manipulating a handful of dutiful veteran followers who were primed and lured into committing violent acts in the name of what they believed to be patriotism.

    It was the most consequential of all Jan. 6 cases so far and represents a historical benchmark for veterans, violent extremism and the intersection of the two.

    How Rhodes Wooed Veterans

    Text messages revealed during the trial showed Rhodes invoking sentiments about patriots taking matters into their own hands and claims that the coming conflict was a kind of "Lexington" moment -- an allusion to the historic early battle of the American Revolutionary War.

    "If a president jumped up and invoked the Insurrection Act and said, 'I'm calling on any veterans in the area to come defend the White House,'" Rhodes said during his testimony on Nov. 4, according to The New York Times, "we'd be ready to do so."

    It was one of many tactics used by Rhodes and his defense to highlight the importance of veteran membership in the nearly 40,000 strong militia organization, which cited high suicide rates in its claims of giving former military members a sense of purpose.

    "The suicide rate is so high," Rhodes said, according to ABC News. "I don't think the military does enough to let them transfer from military life to civilian life."

    But according to experts and those once close to him, Rhodes' testimony -- specifically about veterans -- was a mirage, one that aimed to show an organization keen on supporting veterans while preying on their desire to defend the country once again.

    Originally, the Justice Department announced that 11 Oath Keepers were facing the top charge of sedition, among other, lesser charges. Out of that group, six had served in the military in some form. Another Oath Keeper, William Wilson, was also charged with sedition but in a separate case.

    Among the group of 12, three men, including Wilson, pleaded guilty to the charge ahead of trial.

    Rhodes himself was a paratrooper, but according to paperwork reviewed by Military.com, he served for just over two-and-a-half years on active duty, leaving the service over 35 years ago after a parachuting accident left him "temporarily disabled."

    Since the Oath Keepers founding in 2009, Rhodes has used his military service, and the former service of others, as a recruitment pitch -- complete with a reinterpretation of the oath of office and official unit insignias in the organization's literature.

    Caldwell is a retired Navy Reserve sailor who served from 1976 to 1995 as an intelligence officer, according to the service. He retired as a lieutenant commander, but records do not give any indication as to why he left just one year shy of the typical 20-year mark that would have granted him a pension.

    Harrelson served in the Army from 2007 to 2011 in a job that focused on maintaining combat vehicles and equipment. According to an Army spokesman, he never deployed overseas.

    Finally, Watkins was also an Army veteran who served as an infantryman from 2001 to 2003, deploying to Afghanistan for four months in 2002. She left the branch as a private, according to the Army, whose records show she served under a different first name.

    The last Oath Keeper and Army veteran facing sedition charges -- Ed Vallejo -- is currently set to go on trial on December 5.

    Throughout the trial, evidence emerged showing how Rhodes manipulated his followers, brandishing their veteran status as something that made them special and more capable than the civilian Oath Keepers.

    In one text exchange, months after the riot, Harrelson felt the need to apologize to Rhodes over what he saw as a failure to keep an eye on Meggs.

    "Not your fault," Rhodes replied. "I should have made sure an actual veteran was in charge." He then followed up by saying that "we should have had a well written five paragraph Op order" -- a standardized and well-known way the Army uses to communicate mission plans.

    "I think with a lot of these individuals you see people who were seeking a sense of belonging in a community that they no longer had," Lewis said.

    Tasha Adams, the estranged wife of Rhodes, told Military.com that Rhodes took advantage of that need for belonging, especially in veterans who may have been experiencing identity loss after leaving service.

    "He also really focused on the fact that they were missing -- not just the feeling of family and the battle buddy situation and someone close to them all the time," she said. "But also the idea of mission ... a lot of these people would come back and they would just be homesick for the idea of a mission to do something that they felt was important and to be focused on something.

    "He would offer them that," she added.

    Jason Van Tatenhove, who was the Oath Keepers' national media director and testified in front of the House January 6th Committee in July, concurred that Rhodes drew potentially vulnerable veterans into the Oath Keepers.

    The militia organized woodland outings and training, "but as far as any sort of financial support or real tangible support for veterans outside of getting a bunch of guys together that have a military background, there really was not any," Van Tatenhove said in an interview Wednesday.

    He also noted a trend in the military experience among many of the veterans who joined the group, outside of some Oath Keepers who landed in legal trouble. "There tended to be less combat veterans," Van Tatenhove said. "There's certainly many more that didn't see combat that are amongst their ranks," adding that those who did have more robust military backgrounds tended to move on "pretty quick."

    "I'm not sure why that dynamic would be, other than maybe they have a lower threshold for bulls--t," he added.

    While data from the Program on Extremism showed a wide range of military experience among participants in the Jan. 6 riot, including defendants with multiple combat tours or direct enemy engagements, the Oath Keepers involved in the siege had mostly uneventful military records.

    "You look at Rhodes," Lewis said. "[He] wanted to be a paratrooper, medically discharged. Yale Law graduate, was then disbarred. Shot his eye out while cleaning his gun. These individuals are looking for that sense of belonging, of community, of brotherhood because they don't have anything else."

    According to interviews and the trial prosecution, it was a need for belonging, a basic understanding of military planning and immersion in far-right fears -- including lies that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen -- that led many of the Oath Keepers to wield knives, batons, ballistic equipment, radios and other quasi-military paraphernalia on Jan. 6.

    'He Views People as Tools'

    Rhodes was convicted of the most serious of charges as the mastermind behind a plot that employed a handful of dutiful followers.

    "He views people as tools for himself to use," Adams told Military.com. "So people with military skills, with military backgrounds -- military credentials, you know, the street cred ... that was useful to him because once he brought them in, he could claim all their accolades as his own.

    "These people were manipulated," she added. "But they allowed it to go too far."

    The testimonies from the accused were peppered with details about their military services, often as ways to separate themselves from Rhodes and the organization. Caldwell pointed to a back injury he sustained while serving in the Navy in the Philippines to show he was physically unable to cause harm on Jan. 6, adding that he learned that Navy was an acronym for "never again volunteer yourself."

    "So, I'm not much of a joiner," he added, according to Jordan Fischer, a reporter for WUSA -- a local Washington D.C. TV station.

    Others, like Harrelson, played a far greater role in the chaos of Jan. 6. Court documents alleged that the Army veteran was Meggs' right-hand man and served as the "ground team lead" for a group of Oath Keepers that ended up entering the Capitol building in a military-style "stack" formation.

    Adams, Rhodes' estranged wife, showed sympathy to Watkins, saying that "she was nearing a mental break when Stewart appeared in her life and offered to put her back together and give her a mission." Van Tatenhove agreed that Rhodes took advantage of her.

    According to CBS News, Watkins testified that her transgender identity played a role in her going AWOL and discharge from the Army and "a steady diet of InfoWars and Alex Jones" led her to find the Oath Keepers.

    Despite the seeming imbalance of responsibility between Rhodes and his subordinates, they also earned their fair share of blame during the trial.

    Caldwell, for example, appeared primed for the violence, texting "if we don't start mowing down masses of these s--balls they will come for all of us," adding "It's kill or be killed I am afraid. I don't want to live in a communist country. I kinda hope there is some s-- tomorrow in some ways just so we can get ON with it," according to messages revealed during the trial.

    Meanwhile, court documents show that prosecutors believed Harrelson to be a key leader among the group. Citing messages in a group of Florida Oath Keepers, court documents argue Meggs told Harrelson he "would both be in charge and would tell the other state team leaders how to 'handle' their own teams."

    After the chaos and destruction of Jan. 6, court documents say Harrelson began deleting messages in a national Oath Keepers chat and told the group that he "didn't realize I was in a unsecured chat with a bunch of s--t bags. And blue falcons."

    Blue falcon is a term often used in military circles to refer to a snitch or backstabber.

    The jury -- the defendants tried desperately to keep the trial out of urban, liberal Washington, D.C. -- offered a "mixed bag" of verdicts, said Rhodes' lawyer, Ed Tarpley, after the trial, according to Kyle Cheney of Politico.

    According to Lewis, the extremism expert, the "mixed bag" sentiment was one of acceptance, "that defendants can get a fair trial with a jury in the District of Columbia."

    "We've seen a lot of Jan. 6 defendants, especially Oath Keepers ... try and make the case that the jury pool in D.C. is either too politically motivated, or too conscious and aware of the events of Jan. 6 to be able to separate fact from fiction," Lewis said.

    "But I think when you look at the spread of the convictions versus the acquittals for conspiracy and a couple of the other charges, what it shows is that this jury took the time to weigh the individual evidence for each of the defendants ... and make a case-by-case determination that is supported by facts -- by evidence -- and which use the rule of law," he added.

    Risks for Veteran Extremism Remain

    No sentencing date has been set for the convicted and Rhodes’ attorneys signaled a plan to appeal the verdict. Given the potential for decades in prison for these crimes, specifically for Rhodes, the Department of Justice announced the verdicts as an unequivocal win -- and a message -- to Jan. 6 defendants.

    "Today the jury returned a verdict convicting all defendants of criminal conduct, including two Oath Keepers leaders for seditious conspiracy against the United States," Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a press release Tuesday. "The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021."

    Garland was joined by FBI Director Christopher Wray and other department officials who touted the convictions.

    But the trial also came amid a 129-page report from the House Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that -- outside of the courtroom -- the FBI and Department of Homeland Security agencies are falling well short of tackling and tracking domestic extremism.

    "This investigation determined that DHS and FBI are not adequately tracking data on acts of domestic terrorism, and that they must do more to follow the law and effectively track these plots and crimes," a committee aide told Military.com this month.

    The report referenced nine instances of domestic terrorism in the last decade or so; four involved veterans, citing a historical reticence from law enforcement agencies to address instances of domestic extremism head on -- including ones involving veterans.

    "What I keep coming back to is how much this illustrates the danger posed by patriot militia movements like the Oath Keepers and how they can so easily and so readily pull veterans into their extremist -- and particularly violent extremist -- activity under the guise of patriotism," Lewis said.

    For Van Tatenhove and Adams, the solutions for dissuading veterans from joining these groups boil down to their potential vulnerability -- reducing the risk factors that led them into Rhodes' arms.

    Van Tatenhove pointed to institutional responsibility from agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, not necessarily in tackling extremism among veterans but for providing better support and advocacy.

    "If we don't," he added, "then it may lead to more events like this where we have a small segment of disenfranchised people willing to go and do things that may not be the best thing for the future of democracy."

    For Lewis, law enforcement is walking a tightrope with balancing individual privacy and freedom with quelling these domestic attacks. And the answer is not easy.

    "The fact that from 2009 until Jan. 5, 2021, this group was able to recruit, radicalize and mobilize veterans under the guise of protecting the average American shows how far behind we are when it comes to countering the root causes of this extremism and radicalization," he said. "A lot of it comes down to the question of political will, and I think a political discomfort with having these hard conversations around why the Oath Keepers engage in this kind of recruitment.

    "What have they been tapping into that the government side is missing?"

    -- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

    -- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

    Related: Inside the Oath Keepers' Plan for an Armed Takeover of the US Capitol

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