Over 27 years in the US Army, Leonard Gruppo joined Special Forces, served in four war zones, and led a combat medics team in Iraq before retiring in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel.
Within six minutes at the US Capitol on January 6, Gruppo joined scores of other military veterans as an anti-Trump mob launched an unprecedented attack on the bastion of American democracy. He is among dozens of veterans and military personnel indicted in connection with the uprising.
Cases like these now pose a painful question for federal judges when they pass judgment on the veterans who stormed the Capitol: Do they deserve leniency because they served their country, or more severe punishment because they swore an oath to defend it?
The Ministry of Justice took the second position. At the moment, in at least five cases, the prosecutor’s office cites the riot participant’s military service as a factor influencing imprisonment or house arrest. Prosecutors have repeatedly stated that the veterans’ service, while commendable, made their January 6 actions more egregious.
The involvement of veterans in the riots was especially shocking because some of them appeared to have used the training they received in the US military against their government to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Several veterans are among the far-right extremists accused of planning coordinated attacks on the Capitol, including members of the Oath Keepers who marched up the steps of the Capitol in a stack used by military foot soldiers.
Prosecutors ‘arguments about the riot participants’ military service did not influence one of the first judges to hear them – at the Gruppo’s verdict hearing last Friday.
“I don’t treat his military service like that. I just can’t bring myself to do it, ”US District Judge Beryl Howell said ahead of Gruppo’s sentence to two years probation, including 90 days of house arrest.
The prosecutor argued that Gruppo’s military service supported the Justice Department’s recommendation for a 30-day prison sentence. Assistant U..S. Attorney Hawa Mirell said the 56-year-old New Mexico-based Gruppo was trained to recognize the obvious danger in the Capitol and “help, not harm.”
“But the fact that he received this training, and the fact that he deliberately ignored his vow to commit one of the most destructive acts against our Constitution and our democracy, really influences the government’s attitude towards his behavior,” she said.
Defense attorney Daniel Lindsay argued that his client’s services to the country should not be used against him. He said that Gruppo initially wanted to be silent about his military service because, in his opinion, he embarrassed her.
“And he did it,” Howell cut in. “Let’s not spare words.”
But the judge said she was surprised by the Justice Department’s position because she believed most Americans would show “tremendous respect” for the Gruppo’s service.
“And it’s not just because I grew up in military bases around the world,” Howell added.
In most criminal cases, judges generally view the defendant’s military service as a mitigating factor in leniency, said James Markham, professor of public law and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But he understands how the Justice Department could have concluded that rioters with military experience should be given higher standards than those who do not.
“Obviously this is not directly related to their military service, but it is also not entirely conceptually related to the fact that someone who is a veteran or who has completed military service can be seen as having a better understanding of the importance of civilian control and stability in elections. “- said Markham. , lawyer, veteran of the Air Force.
More than 650 people are accused of the January 6 attack. Some of the most severely indicted rioters, including members of extreme right-wing extremist groups, have a military background. A handful of riot defendants were on active duty, including an army reservist who wore Hitler’s mustache at his job at a naval base.
More than 100 people accused of riots have pleaded guilty, mostly to offenses punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment. As of Friday, two dozen were sentenced. At least three of those convicted are veterans, according to a review of court records by the Associated Press.
In September, US District Judge James Boasberg sentenced Air Force veteran Derek Jankart to 45 days in prison for rioting. The prosecutor’s office was seeking a four-month prison sentence for Jankart, an Ohio steelworker.
“He vowed to defend the country, and instead he participated in an attack on democracy itself,” said Assistant US Attorney Leslie Goemaat.
Zhankart said he loves his country and is ashamed of his actions. The judge told Jankart that he respects his military service, especially his assignment to Afghanistan, but said that was not the only factor to consider.
“Together with others, you tried to undermine one of the fundamental actions of our country, namely the peaceful transfer of power after democratic elections,” Boasberg said.
Another Air Force veteran, Thomas Vinson, was sentenced October 22 to five years probation. Prosecutors recommended three months house arrest for Vinson, a Kentucky resident who served in the Air Force from 1984 to 1988.
Vinson, whose wife was also sentenced to probation for entering the Capitol on January 6, told US District Judge Reggie Walton that he loved his country and had joined the military to defend it.
“I took this oath to the Constitution, and I know I broke that oath that day by entering that building,” Vinson said.
At least two other rioters who served in the army are to be sentenced in the coming days.
Prosecutors recommended two months in prison for Boyd Camper, who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1987 to 1990. A Montana man told the FBI that he believed he was on the “front line” and went into a “combat” state of mind in the Capitol, prosecutors said, where he used a camera with an extension rod to record himself inside a building.
“His voluntary decision to storm a secure government building is nothing short of a shock in light of his former military service and training,” prosecutors wrote ahead of the October 12 sentencing to Camper.
Prosecutors are demanding two months of house arrest for Air Force veteran Jonathan Ace Sanders Sr., whose sentence is slated for Thursday. Prosecutors said surveillance video captured an Indiana man wearing a military vest as he walked through the Capitol.
“As a veteran of the Air Force, Sanders was well aware of the enormous danger posed by the violent infiltration of rioters into the Capitol,” prosecutors wrote. “His repeated claims that he did nothing wrong are not credible – his biography shows that he knew better.”