Oath Keepers, carrying rifles, walk along West Florrisant Street as demonstrators mark the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 10, 2015, in Ferguson, Missouri. A leaked list of Oath Keepers includes 373 Kansans. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Few things surprise me anymore. Journalists look into all kinds of assorted (and sorted and sordid) data, and it’s our job to tease meaningful stories out of the information, whether it’s a stack of boxes from a cold case murder to a spreadsheet on what the local city council spends on travel. But when I was handed a leaked membership roster for the Oath Keepers in Kansas, something shocked me enough to swear out loud.
One of the dues-paying members had listed nuclear weapons training as among his skills.
The Oath Keepers is the extreme right-wing militia whose leader was convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Kansas roster, which was current as of September 2021, is part of a national database of more than 38,000 individuals, and includes not just names and addresses but sometimes detailed background information self-reported by members.
It wasn’t a surprise there were 373 dues-paying Keepers scattered across the Sunflower State. Most described themselves as military veterans or retired cops, the key demographics for the organization. Four of the Kansas members listed themselves as active-duty military, including two with “.mil” email addresses. Some described themselves as currently in law enforcement. A few Kansas Keepers said they were thinking of running for public office, and at least one actually did, losing a race for county sheriff.
This was expected, as the national list included more than 300 individuals who were law enforcement officers, more than 100 who were active military, and 81 who held or were running for elective office, according to an analysis done by the Anti-Defamation League. While an individual’s inclusion on the list is not proof they were or remain an Oath Keeper, or that they were involved in or sympathetic with the Jan. 6 insurrection, the database does provide a street-level snapshot of one of the largest right-wing paramilitaries during a pivotal year in American democracy.
‘Personal Reliability Program’
On the Kansas list, members described skills ranging from public relations to recruitment to combat operations. A Wichita Keeper said his experience included “Mastergunner M1/M1A1 tank, urban warfare. … Dedicated to my conservative values and believing in my Constitution as my forefathers meant it to be.”
Many noted similar feelings about the Constitution and the oaths they had taken as members of the armed forces or as sworn law enforcement officers. There were a few journalists on the list, including one man who said he owned a small “award-winning newspaper” in Kansas who suggested helping the organization with writing or editing.
I noted six Keepers listed in my hometown of Emporia (founding city of Veterans Day), including two on my street — Constitution! — within a half a block of me. With hundreds of names on the list, that was alarming but not really surprising. At least neither listed any special deadly skills, and the names rang no bells, for which I was thankful.
But what brought the “funk” to my lips was this nugget from a Topeka man who offered this when describing his experience with the Kansas Army National Guard: “I was in the Personal Reliability Program because I was a member of those Firing Batteries Special Weapons Teams. Let’s just say for five of my first six years I learned how to put together ‘Oppenheimer Mushroom seeds.’ ”
The reference, of course, was to nukes.
Personnel Reliability is a Department of Defense program designed to permit only the most trustworthy individuals to have access to nuclear weapons. Trustworthy, in this case, means having been evaluated medically and mentally, and have passed a rigorous background check, according to DOD policy.
Seeds are a reference to the plutonium pits that trigger nuclear explosions in gravity bombs and warheads, some of which could be fired from conventional artillery. Tactical, low-yield nukes numbered in the thousands during the Cold War era, but now may comprise just a couple of hundred in the U.S. arsenal.
So, this clown was listing his training with nuclear weapons as a possible asset to the Oath Keepers? Surely this was some kind of bragging, I thought. So I did some digging with the other information this Kansas Keeper had volunteered: He had served in Battery C of the 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery, he said, and in Battery C of the 2nd Battalion, 130th Field Artillery. Unfortunately, this checked out. The 161st is indeed a regiment of the Kansas Army National Guard with Charlie Company located at Newton, and the 130th is a Kansas Guard regiment with its Charlie at Hiawatha.
Then I looked the guy up on social media and sure enough, he had accounts that gave the same military history (although the claim about nukes was omitted). I’m not going to identify the man here, because he has been accused of no crime, although casually offering to an extremist right-wing group that you have experience with nuclear warheads surely should have set off red flags — no, flares — with various three-letter federal agencies.
I contacted the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office and asked whether service members of the 161st or 130th, now or in the past, would have had training in nuclear weapons.
“We do not currently have a Personnel Reliability Program in the Kansas National Guard,” Jane Welch, a spokeswoman for the adjutant general’s office, told me. “The (batteries cited) have not had a nuclear mission since the late ’80s or early ’90s. During that time, the Kansas National Guard only used training rounds.”
At least there’s that.
Ten bucks a month
While glad to know the Oath Keepers probably wouldn’t get their mitts on a tactical nuke, at least not in Kansas, a question lingered in my mind: Why would hundreds of my fellow Kansans join an extremist organization that, in the end, tried to destroy American democracy in an attempt to save it? The Oath Keepers made no secret of their anti-government goals and embraced just about every conspiracy theory that made the rounds of the far right, from jitters about a shadowy New World Order to paranoia about the Covid-19 vaccine.
None of the individuals on the Kansas list appears to have been charged with any crime in connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection. None identified themselves as an elected official. There are also no names that most Kansans would be expected to recognize. But at some point, they must have been moved enough by the violent rhetoric to shell out at least 10 bucks a month in membership dues.
Judging from the comments on the list, most seem to have joined the Oath Keepers out of a desire to protect something — their communities, their country, or a culture they saw as under attack by enemies, foreign and domestic. They are your neighbors and (quite literally) my neighbors, drawn to the American fringe by presumably the same impulse that draws hands to hearts when we hear the National Anthem.
And that is exactly what Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, wanted.
The Fort Leavenworth billboard
Rhodes launched the Oath Keepers on April 19, 2009. Capitalizing on a wave of anti-government sentiment after the election of Barack Obama, Rhodes — a Yale graduate and disbarred lawyer — built a right-wing movement fueled in equal parts by faux patriotism and real paranoia. His goal was to gain access to power by recruiting members from the military, police, and first responders. The message was that the federal government was in the control of the far left and that only “patriots” could save the republic.
The Oath Keepers were closely aligned with the Tea Party movement.
In 2012, the Oath Keepers funded a billboard outside the entrance to Fort Leavenworth that declared “The Tea Party is not the Enemy” and called retired Army Col. Kevin Benson a “Red Coat.” The billboard was also a recruiting tool because it gave the address of the Oath Keepers website.
Benson had written a piece for the scholarly “Small Wars Journal” that imagined what the military’s response should be if called upon to put down a state insurrection by a right-wing militia.
“In May 2016 an extremist militia motivated by the goals of the ‘tea party’ movement takes over the government of Darlington, South Carolina, occupying City Hall,” Benson envisioned, writing nine years before Jan. 6, 2021. “Activists remove the chief of police and either disarm local police and county sheriff’s departments or discourage them from interfering. In truth, it is hardly necessary. Many law enforcement officials already are sympathetic to the tea party’s agenda, know many of the people involved, and have made clear they will not challenge the takeover. The militia members are organized and have a relatively well thought-out plan of action.”
It all sounds uncomfortably familiar now.
‘How Civil Wars Start’
In Benson’s scenario, the president uses the Insurrection Act to send in the military to quell the rebellion, mindful that their actions would be under the close scrutiny of the American media.
In reality, the Tea Party movement had faded by 2016, having provided the seed for other right-wing groups like the Oath Keepers that found their own momentum with the rise of Donald Trump. But the movement did not begin with the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys or the Tea Party, but goes back much farther; the date Rhodes chose to launch the Oath Keepers, April 19, was not only Patriot’s Day in New England, but was an anniversary that would resonate across the spectrum of right-wing extremists. It was the key date in the events of Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, co-conspirators of the Oklahoma City bombing, had met in the Army.
What Rhodes and his confederates managed was to exploit what passed for patriotism in grassroots America while simultaneously perverting it with the madness of anti-government white Christian nationalist dogma. The scale of their success wasn’t fully known until the Oath Keepers membership rosters were leaked in September 2021 by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit collective that makes the data released to them available to researchers and journalists.
“There are hundreds of far-right groups in America today that believe the country needs a major conflict to right itself,” writes Barbara F. Walter in her 2022 book, “How Civil Wars Start.”
The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters are the biggest groups at the moment, Walter says, and they have similar goals, including wanting white Christian men in charge. The way they try to accelerate that change, she says, is to look for any excuse to incite violence.
Because of this Oath Keepers list, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what exactly makes a patriot. I’ve concluded that anybody who calls themselves one almost certainly isn’t. Some horrible things in American history — the defense of the slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Oklahoma City bombing — were done in the name of love of country, and professedly for us. But I’ve never met anybody who called themselves a patriot who didn’t want something from me, and it’s typically my money or my vote.
Real patriots are buried in foreign fields or returned home leaving a little bit of their souls behind and hoped the rest of us would never have to. They are honorable men and women who served as soldiers or sworn police officers or first responders when called but never made a fuss and who might be sitting at home now, worried about the state of the country but not knowing what to do about it.
History will judge their patriotism, not a $10 membership card.
In Kansas, the cities with 10 or more Keepers on the leaked membership rolls are Wichita, 44; Topeka, 19; Overland Park, 14; Olathe, 13; Kansas City, Kansas, 12; Junction City, 11; and Hutchinson, 11.
But I keep coming back not to the numbers, but to our funky nuclear artilleryman.
It is possible that he provided the comment about the nukes as a way to demonstrate how much trust the Kansas Guard placed in him. Or it could have been just a bit of bragging about the past. There certainly would be little chance that he could actually have gained access to any of the nuclear weapons he handled in the past. But then why even make such a comment when joining a group like the Oath Keepers?
It’s all unthinkable.
Only some of our neighbors might know for sure.
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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