When they joined the military, they swore oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders all the way up to those from the president of the United States.
But then, while still in the service, they went on to swear a different allegiance – one to the now extremist, anti-government Oath Keepers. Dozens of military members vowed they would never obey potential government orders that group leaders considered acts of war or cause for a revolution.
At least 20 are still serving.
USA TODAY confirmed with all five branches of the U.S. military that 81 people signed up for the Oath Keepers while in uniform. The names are from a hacked list that a watchdog group shared with journalists last fall. The military members are in addition to the 40 current and former law enforcement officers USA TODAY confirmed in October 2021.
The Defense Department has known for decades that its members were joining extremist groups but often did not punish them, instead keeping in place a vague policy that banned their active participation, such as through fundraising or recruiting.
In December, the Defense Department clarified more than a dozen examples of active participation, but it's unclear whether joining the Oath Keepers and remaining a member of the militia would run afoul of the new rules.
Fourteen of the 20 service members who are still in uniform signed up for the Oath Keepers using their military email addresses. The Department of Defense generally bans service members from using military email for personal affairs and expressly bans them from using their emails in ways that would “reflect adversely” on the military or “other uses that are incompatible with public service.”
Defense Department officials should have known about the issue as early 2018, when a person with the Southern Poverty Law Center sent her contact a copy of another leaked membership list, which had information through 2015. Of the 20 active members USA TODAY found in the list released in the fall, 16 also appeared on the 2015 list. And of the 130 military emails on the list this fall, 124 of them also appeared on the 2015 list.
Several of those who identified themselves as current military on their sign-up forms described the tactical skills they could bring to the Oath Keepers. Jeremiah Pulaski, who said he was an Army veteran living in Arizona, said: “I’m not sure I’m an Infantry man so I’m limited. But if needed I’ll get the job done."
Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Department of Defense spokesman, said in a statement: “We do not tolerate extremists in our ranks or any extremism activity. Any individual or individuals we identify who have extremist behaviors or extremist tendencies are addressed immediately. When we become aware of these individuals or their activities, we refer them to appropriate authorities.”
The Pentagon has had multiple opportunities over the past several years to limit attempts by extremist groups like the Oath Keepers from gaining traction in branches of the military. But it has taken little to no action until current Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to make progress on extremism in the ranks following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
At least 106 of the individuals charged with crimes related to the insurrection were linked to a far-right or extremist organization, according to federal charging documents. At least 26 were members of the Oath Keepers.That number includes the 11, such as founder Stewart Rhodes, who were charged with seditious conspiracy or allegedly trying to overthrow the government, the harshest charges yet filed in the Jan. 6 attack.
“This is a really, really serious problem,” said Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and former head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “And time is of the essence.”
“Too many active-duty troops have been caught up in domestic terrorism investigations in recent years,” Beirich said, “and you just say the words ‘Timothy McVeigh,’ or ‘Eric Rudolph,’ and you realize what the dangers are of a white supremacist or other kind of extremist who's learned a lot in the military and then uses it against the American people.”
'I thought it was patriotic'
Four of the 20 currently serving military members told USA TODAY they signed up for the group about a decade ago and are no longer involved. USA TODAY reached out via phone and email to the others but did not receive responses.
Some said they saw Oath Keepers ads in magazines or gun shops. Others said they heard about a National Rifle Association-type group that cared about the Constitution.
The membership list in question likely includes all people who signed up for the Oath Keepers since 2009, even ones who allowed their memberships to lapse.
Sgt. Anthony Guadagnino works as a recruiter for the New York Army National Guard in Troy, New York. He said signing up for the group was a mistake.
"I thought it was patriotic," he said. "It’s not."
William Potting, a Marine, said he heard about the group around 2013. He saw it in a Facebook group for supporters of former Congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign.
“It looked like a veterans’ group that was pro-Constitution,” he said. “After awhile, the emails were just junk mail. They were constantly sending me emails, so I unsubscribed.”
Charles Martin, who serves in the Navy, said about a decade ago he and his wife saw a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution on the wall of an Army surplus store. He said the store owner gave him a flyer to fill out for the Oath Keepers that included an offer to win a framed Constitution.
“They kept emailing me and I just moved their crap to my spam folder and never dealt with them," Martin said.
Fire control specialist Joshua Hockman with the Army National Guard serving in Florida, said he hasn't been involved in about a decade, and never finished paying his dues.
Matthew Vanderboegh, who has served in the U.S. Army Reserve since 2000, signed up for the Oath Keepers in 2010 and wrote on the sign-up form he could help with “recruitment” and “pass out flyers.” He is the son of the co-founder of Three Percenters, a far-right militia named for a debunked theory involving the American Revolution that at times has allied with the Oath Keepers.
In 2016, Vanderboegh took over a Three Percenters blog, where he wrote about the future of the movement, recommended a book on militia training to his followers, and coordinated a T-shirt order. He did not respond to several emails from USA TODAY.
Some members’ comments on the sign-up form indicated they knew what the Oath Keepers were preparing for and were ready to use their military training to help the group.
"If the time comes I will execute my duty as a III Percenter and Oath Keeper,” wrote Scott Wassmer, who identified himself as a Coast Guardsman from Wisconsin. He left the service in 2015, according to the Coast Guard.
Vincent DiCello, a former Navy pilot who declined to comment, wrote on the Oath Keepers sign-up form that he has “electronic warfare background" and “recruiting training” and said he was an “expert shot” with a pistol and rifle.
'A true national security risk'
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, who has been using her seat to help end extremism in the military since at least 2019, called USA TODAY’s findings alarming.
“This is a true national security risk, and we have an obligation to take steps to protect other service members and to make sure that we are recruiting people who have the appropriate profiles,” she said.
Orland, from the Department of Defense, said individual supervisors and leaders are responsible for individual discipline, and that commanders can use “the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions, including administrative separation or appropriate criminal action.”
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However, the longtime Pentagon policy only prohibited service members from actively advocating for extremism such as supremacy and gang doctrines, not from being affiliated with such groups in the first place. A working group Austin put together following the Jan. 6 insurrection clarified the policy on active participation in December but fell short of banning all types of involvement in extremist groups.
"As a result of the January 6 attack and the number of military service members and veterans and law enforcement officers (who were involved in the attack), I think there’s a growing recognition that there needs to be the due diligence done on individuals who are going to have positions of trust within the government," Speier said.
Of the five branches USA TODAY contacted for this story, the Navy took the strictest stance, saying it would not tolerate such behavior. Four of the 20 currently serving members of the military were in the Navy.
“Sailor participation in supremacist or extremist activities is directly contrary to professionalism standards which all Sailors are expected to follow,” said Navy spokeswoman Priscilla Rodriguez. “We will investigate reports of misconduct and those found in violation of the Navy’s policies will be held accountable.”
'My heart wasn't really in it'
Another 61 veterans from the Oath Keepers membership list, almost all men, are now retired but signed up while in uniform. The majority joined between 2009 and 2013. Most were in the Army, the largest branch of the military and where Rhodes, the group's founder, served.
Daniel Medoff, 38, was serving in the Army when he signed up in 2009. He was fresh off a tour in Iraq and serving at a hospital in Germany when an ad for the Oath Keepers "popped up" online one day. "My heart wasn't really in it, it was just more the thrill of it –that addiction of feeling like I could belong somewhere,” Medoff said.
Coast Guard veterans Matthew Rupp and Michael Marion signed up with their Coast Guard email addresses. Cody Meridith joined with his Navy email while he was serving. The three men told USA TODAY that they did not realize what the Oath Keepers were about when they sent in money or joined, describing an organization that has changed drastically over the past decade.
Rupp, who retired from the Coast Guard in 2019, said he sent in $15 around 2013 in response to a magazine ad about helping out with disaster relief. Then the Oath Keepers sent him a pamphlet in the mail. “Once I got the pamphlet, I realized it was a load of horsesh—,” he said. “It was not as described.”
The Oath Keepers have used apocalyptic and revolutionary language to lure military veterans and law enforcement since their founding in 2009. The Oath Keepers say their interpretation of the Constitution trumps the federal government’s power, and the group lists 10 specific orders that military service members or law enforcement officers must never obey. The list includes a hypothetical situation where the government orders citizens to disarm.
In 2014, members of the Oath Keepers stood in solidarity with a rancher in Nevada who had for years refused to pay the federal government to let his cattle roam on federal land. The rancher echoed long-debunked beliefs held by the militia movement that the federal government cannot own land, and that true power rests with county sheriffs. Two of the 61 veterans joined that year, and another two joined in 2015.
The group plunged itself into racial justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri, even after the local police department told them to stand down, and later into rallies for former President Donald Trump. Rhodes simultaneously started appearing on conspiracy theory sites such as Infowars.
'Preparing for a civil war'
Even though the Oath Keepers have become more extreme over time, it has always been an anti-government group preparing for a civil war under the guise of advocacy for the Constitution.
Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago, said that while some extremist groups target people of color but still support the government, the Oath Keepers’ primary target is the federal government, which includes the military.
“Our active-duty troops take an oath to protect our nation, our Constitution – from enemies, foreign and domestic,” she said. She called the Oath Keepers part of a militant white power groundswell that has “attempted to overthrow the United States or to target its elected officials, its agents, its infrastructure, and its people.”
Belew invoked language from the military oath of enlistment, when members say they will defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“They've been enemies domestic,” she added.
Susan Corke, the intelligence project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the Oath Keepers target military and law enforcement specifically to take advantage of their tactical training.
“Their ultimate goal is a hard-right ethnostate, and they’re prepared to take up arms to do so, and they’re actively preparing,” Corke said. “The tactical expertise of military and law enforcement is very, very attractive to the Oath Keepers.”
'Willing to do anything that is legal'
Dozens of people on the Oath Keepers membership list used an email address ending in .mil, the Department of Defense's domain ending, and at least 14 of those are still serving.
This is an apparent violation of Pentagon regulations about the use of military email accounts for uses that would “reflect adversely” on the Defense Department or “other uses that are incompatible with public service.” But it’s not clear if members who used their emails simply to join the group have violated the vague policy banning active participation in extremist groups.
“It’s disturbing that people are in touch with Oath Keepers, but you gotta wonder who would be silly enough to use their work email for this,” said Jim Lewis, a senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Jason Kobylarz, a U.S. Army veteran who signed up for the Oath Keepers in 2010, said people likely used their military email addresses because they weren’t tech savvy and it was the only email they had at the time. He said it probably went against a policy, but no one seemed to be enforcing it.
Todd Pegg, an Army colonel and commandant at the Virginia Military Institute, appeared on both lists USA TODAY used for this investigation. The records say he signed up for an annual membership on March 30, 2010. He denied ever being involved with the Oath Keepers. He is currently on military leave.
Col. Bill Wyatt, spokesperson for the Virginia Military Institute, said Pegg “is not now nor has he ever been affiliated with the Oath Keepers. He suspects they got his name from a gun show he attended in the past.” Wyatt said he did not know the name of the gun show.
Bradley Baker, who is currently serving with the U.S. Coast Guard, signed up with his military email. He wrote on the form: “I feel very strongly in the Oath Keepers message and I would be willing to do anything that is legal to help the cause.”
Lt. Cmdr. Brittany Panetta, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, said that branch conducted a “preliminary inquiry” into Baker that included a scan of government systems and Coast Guard networks and “uncovered no affiliation" between the guardsman and the Oath Keepers. She did not elaborate on details about the scan.
Jonathan Fox, of Virginia, signed up using a military email representing the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Department of Defense Agency “focused exclusively on countering and deterring weapons of mass destruction and emerging threats.”
Reached at home, Fox said he was no longer with the Oath Keepers and declined to comment further. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency said in an email that the agency does not confirm or deny people’s employment.
'People with a split allegiance'
This isn’t the first time the Pentagon has learned that service members had joined the Oath Keepers.
Beirich, from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said when she was running the SPLC’s intelligence project in 2018, she sent the military a membership list from 2015. Orland, the Department of Defense spokesman, said he did not have information on that list.
Of the 20 active members USA TODAY found in the list released last fall, 16 also appeared on the 2015 list.
Lorax B. Horne, a member of the Distributed Denial of Secrets collective, which released the second Oath Keepers membership list, said the organization has not received a data request from the military.
The U.S. military has had other warnings about extremists in its ranks.
The U.S. military, which includes about 1.3 million active-duty members across the five branches, plus some 800,000 reservists, has had other warnings about extremists in its ranks.
In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that military personnel were under such intense pressure to recruit for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan that the Pentagon “relaxed standards to prohibit racist extremists from serving in the armed forces.” The group sent those findings to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In 2009, federal intelligence agents at the Department of Homeland Security published a report warning extremists were attempting to recruit current and former members of the military. The report evoked outrage from Republican politicians and their allies in conservative media, and it was quickly buried. The unit that wrote the report was disbanded.
"This has been a problem that the Pentagon has been aware of, at least since the late 1970s,” said Belew, the Chicago professor. “We have, over and over again, dealt with the disappearance of weapons for military posts and bases; with targeted recruitment on posts; with people with a split allegiance to groups that would like to overthrow the United States while they're serving.”
Contributing: Dinah Voyles Pulver and Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Military members signed up for Oath Keepers while serving, hack shows