When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Kris Goldsmith: PTSD, Less-Than-Honorable Discharges, and Domestic Violent Extremism

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Kris Goldsmith: PTSD, Less-Than-Honorable Discharges, and Domestic Violent Extremism

Kris Goldsmith is an Army combat Veteran who served in Iraq. As a 19 year-old, he was assigned the task of photographing corpses and documenting mass graves. He developed severe PTSD, and in 2007, as the result of a suicide attempt that caused him to miss redeployment, he was given a less-than-honorable discharge. After years of legal battles, that discharge was upgraded. Kris went on to become an advocate for veterans with “bad paper” discharges, and helped pass crucial legislation that helps them receive the benefits they deserve. Since then, Kris has turned to combating domestic right-wing extremism.

To learn more about Kris’ time in the Army, listen to his episode of Warriors In Their Own Words.

Find Kris on Twitter at @KrisGoldsmith85

Learn more about his organization, High Ground Veterans Advocacy, here.

Learn more about Kris’ work fighting domestic extremism here.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Kris Goldsmith:

Not only had I lost my sense of control in life, I had, with my suicide attempt, lost my entire support network. And shortly after that, within three months, I was out of the Army. Went from being Sergeant Goldsmith back to Kris living in his childhood bedroom.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.


My guest today is Kris Goldsmith, an Army Vet who served in combat in Iraq. In 2007, he received a less-than-honorable discharge after a suicide attempt brought on by severe, untreated PTSD. After years of appealing his discharge, Kris took his case to Congress, and was successful in forcing a change in policy at The Department of Defense. His discharge was upgraded to honorable, and that policy shift has unlocked Billions of dollars in benefits for other veterans wrongfully denied.

In the years since then, Kris’s efforts have refocused on combating domestic violent extremism, especially where veterans are involved.

Kris, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Kris Goldsmith:

Hey, Ken. How are you?

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm good, good. Great to have you. We got to set the stage. And I know it sucks going back to that fateful date, Memorial Day weekend. Can you tell us about May 28th 2007?

Kris Goldsmith:

Sure. So after I returned home from a year long deployment to Iraq, I came home pretty much worse for wear. I hadn't had an incredibly rough deployment, like a lot of folks who saw house to house combat type of stuff did, but my job ended up being things like, at the age of 19, photo documentation of mass graves. And that's something that takes a lot to learn how to process. And I wasn't given the opportunity, or the training, or the knowledge on how to begin to even do that. So by May 28th 2007, I had been planning on getting out of the Military. I had served my almost four year enlistment, but I had just been stop-loss into a deployment that, very poetically, would lead to my second deployment being the same week that my contract was set to expire.

So I had been recovering from some surgeries, and was even taking some painkillers for that. I spent a couple weeks on bed rest looking at this second deployment that I didn't want to go on for a war that I no longer supported. And to say that I was incredibly depressed doesn't even scratch the surface. I was beyond able to justify what I was experiencing. I felt like I couldn't escape my situation. And the last aspect of control, and I'm saying this with years of therapy in hindsight, and talking about this with doctors thousands of times, right? And come to realize now that my suicide attempt was the one last expression of self control that I had. I had been accepted to college. I was planning on going home. I had been planning, saving money. I'd been buying an apartment worth of stuff, thinking that I was going to go live in an apartment outside of college. And packing all of that stuff into storage not knowing if I would ever come back and open that storage locker again was just infuriating to me.

So the weekend of Memorial Day 2007, just before I was supposed to deploy, I walked out onto a field on Fort Stewart, Georgia, called Soldiers' Walk where they plant a tree for every soldier in the unit who's died in combat. And that's where I chose to try to take my own life. And I took the pain killers that I'd had from that recent surgery and a bottle of vodka. And thankfully, my roommate at the time, and best friend from... Guy I knew from basic training figured it all out as it was happening, called the police, and luckily they found me. I ended up for about two weeks on a locked down mental ward at Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart. And from that moment that I woke up, everything was different. I had been a golden boy in my unit, never got in trouble, promoted ahead of my peers, had tons of friends and everything. And then all of a sudden, I woke up and I was treated like a criminal, total black sheep.

So not only had I lost my sense of control in life, I had, with my suicide attempt, lost my entire support network. And shortly after that, within three months, I was out of the Army. Went for being Sergeant Goldsmith back to Kris living in his childhood bedroom. And that only exacerbated the PTSD. So though I did still qualify for mental health or VA health care benefits, I no longer qualified for the GI Bill. And coming into the Great Recession, I spent about five years in the dark. And honestly, I can't remember most of my early to mid 20s.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to hear more about that. But for those who don't understand that time period, those of us who were in the Military or had recently gotten out understand it, can you describe what stop-loss was like for those impacted? And I'll just give the shorthand. It's basically an end run around the abolition of the draft, forcing people to serve who have already done their time.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. A stop-loss is a backdoor draft, essentially. And it's, during the Bush years when things weren't going so well, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, I guess, comparative, they've never been going well. But they couldn't get enough people to enlist. And when they did, they couldn't get enough people to reenlist. So those of us who went on active duty orders, if we signed up for a three year contract, or four year contract, and our exit term of service date, what you think of as the end of your contract, if that landed within 90 days of a deployment, they would hold you in that unit through 90 days on the other side of the deployment. So when I got those orders, I basically understood what was happening as Bush was giving his 2007 State of the Union Address, when he announced the troop surge into Iraq.

And my ETS, my contract date was supposed to expire in May of 2007. And right away, I knew my unit had been planning to deploy later in that year, but just because we were already in the pipeline, they just move those dates up and it affected thousands and thousands of troops across the Military during those years. And if you are not looking to reenlist, you don't reenlist, and then the Military essentially drafts you into an extra deployment, there's no bigger morale killer. You essentially go from being an all volunteer Army to being conscripted against your will, which is something that, in the end, Congress ended up giving us, I don't know. Well, I didn't qualify because I got kicked out, but people got a couple extra hundred bucks per month if they were stop-loss. But there's no amount of money that can make a deployment that you didn't volunteer for worth it.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was your rock bottom, that stop-loss order is what drove you to that field on Fort Stewart. But you mentioned your best friend noticing the signs, and taking action, and calling the cops, who, I take it, found you.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So I came to. Now, there's conscious, like you're awake and you can be speaking and interacting with people. And then there's conscious that you can remember and you're really there and it's really you. So there were points when I was doing things like walking around and fighting with the police as they tried to drag me into an ambulance that I have no memory of. But when I came to, when my memory starts was, I guess, really being interviewed, doing this like intake thing after I had already been put on the mental health ward. And the first thing I remember is sitting there, trying my best to be respectful and answer whatever questions I was being asked, and then having to excuse myself because I had to go throw up some charcoal that I guess they pumped into me.

The next thing that I really remember is how initially I felt like I was being met with compassion by my unit. And the rear detachment commander, who is filling the role of a captain, but he was a staff sergeant infantryman. He was actually one of my squad leaders during my deployment and was basically like, "Listen, we understand you got screwed, and you've been obviously needing help for a while, and trying to get it. And we recognize that you got screwed. So, we're going to just try and get you out of here, and get you home as soon as possible." And I felt great. I mean, I had been, up to that point, spent months and months and months trying to get help without letting my unit know, because, and it's like this all over the Military, but particularly in 2007 at a time before PTSD was really part of the American lexicon, let alone something we discussed openly in the Military. I was afraid if I were diagnosed with something and they told my unit, I would have been deemed a shit bag, or a coward, or a broken, and treated accordingly because I'd seen that happen to scores of people going through similar situations.

But that very quickly came to an end. And turned around, and initially that same guy, this rear detachment commander, this staff sergeant, basically says, "All right, well, we heard from downrange," meaning the commanders overseas, "And we need you to deploy. So we just need you to straighten up and we'll pretend this never happened," as if my suicide attempt was a criminal act. And on the other side, I have the doctors, including a colonel in the Army, a psychiatrist, who was saying explicitly, "If you're still suicidal, we'll just keep you up here indefinitely." Now, I was 21 when this happened. And my idea of what the Military's definition of indefinite was, was that I would literally die on that mental health ward.

And I can't say that that's incredibly rational or anything like that. But the things that I experienced up to that point, the trauma that I experienced with this sudden shift in how I was being treated by the Military, that's what I believed. I believed that if I expressed my true symptoms, my depression, my anxiety, my suicidal ideation, that I would be locked away. And it's a really frightening thing to be put on a mental health ward, to be stripped of your shoelaces and your belt, so you can't attempt to hang yourself. You're not treated by your rank. I was no longer a sergeant. I was a patient, having no access to the internet or phones. It's like going to prison, except instead of committing a crime and having due process rights, you're locked away. And that experience is absolutely terrifying.

Ken Harbaugh:

You were literally handcuffed to a gurney when you regained consciousness from the attempt, is that right?

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. Yeah. And so, part of the reason, or part of the way that I was kicked out of the Military was, I was given two counseling statements weeks after the fact by this rear detachment commander. And one of them was for malingering, which is a medical diagnosis. And an infantryman with a high school education is not qualified to give a diagnosis of any kind, let alone like that. And the second thing I was counseled for was missing movement. And it is true that I missed movement, meaning I didn't deploy at the prescribed time. I didn't get on the plane that had a seat for me. But the reason is, is I was handcuffed to a gurney, because I was being kept alive after a suicide attempt.

And that suicide attempt came after months and months and months of not just the me generally trying to get help and asking for help, but at a certain point, it started to get documented. Not at my unit, but in my medical records. I had been secretly seeking counseling and going to meetings with doctors for months to talk about what I was going through. And despite that medical history, all it took was those two counseling statements after having no other negative marks on my entire Military career, those two counseling statements were all it took to end my Military career with a general discharge.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you explain the impact of a general or less than honorable discharge?

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So less than honorable discharges are something that are, in the history of our Military, a relatively new concept. It's something that really developed during the Vietnam war, and has been used more and more ever since at higher rates, higher numbers since the Vietnam War. It's gotten really bad for the GWOT generation.

Ken Harbaugh:

Global war on terror.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So at a certain point, I think it was in 2011, 10% or so of the Marines who left the Corps in that year did so with less than honorable discharge. And so there are several different types of less than honorable discharges. There are administrative, which are done as easy as any other paperwork that happens in the Military. That can be a general discharge, which denies someone a lifetime of economic benefits through the GI Bill. Or there's an other than honorable discharge, which historically denies veterans even all VA Healthcare benefits. Doesn't matter if they have preexisting diagnosis, combat related injuries or illnesses, that's it. The VA would historically not take care of them anymore. And then there's the punitive discharges, which you can only get as a result of a court martial. And there's at least some aspects of due process there, whether it's a special court martial, or general court martial, you would least have somewhat of a formal defense.

So in my case, I received a general discharge with a narrative of separation of misconduct, serious offense. So my DD214, rather than reflecting over three years of honorable service, and sure, it showed my promotion dates and stuff like that, it very prominently said in all caps misconduct as my reason for separation. So not only did it make me ineligible for the GI Bill, but it also made me ineligible for unemployment benefits, and it made it so that my Military history, looking like a criminal record, was no longer something that I could use as a bullet point on my resume when applying for jobs. And again, coming out into the recession, there was not a lot there for me. And it also, because of the discrimination more generally, I couldn't join most veteran service organizations. I didn't qualify for any veteran's scholarships or fellowships. So, even though it was just a general discharge, and it was given to me administratively without any due process rights whatsoever, it basically stripped me of my veteran status for all intents and purposes. It made recovery so, so much exponentially harder.

Ken Harbaugh:

So, can I connect these threads and see if I'm getting the story, right? You sign up to serve your country.

Kris Goldsmith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ken Harbaugh:

You go to Iraq. And are tasked by your country, by your Army with documenting some of the most gruesome scenes imaginable. That scars you, as it would scar most people. You come home. You try to deal with it. You try to get help. You're unsuccessful. That spiral culminates, or bottoms out in that suicide attempt at Fort Stewart. You wake up handcuffed to a gurney, and in short order, are drummed out of the Army without any of the resources needed to deal with the trauma that you have endured on behalf of the nation.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Doing what we sent you there to do.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. Well, one important thing was, with the general discharge, I still did qualify for VA health care. And no, I realistically wasn't given a warm handoff at all to the VA. I didn't even know that I was qualified for VA health care. Hell, I didn't even know what VA health care was as I was getting out. Once I did get connected with the VA, I was going as often as weekly. I mean, hell, I was unemployed, I had nothing else to do. So I went to the VA frequently, and it took a half a decade before I even started to stabilize. I suffered from suicidality throughout that entire period. But most veterans who receive less than honorable discharges, there's 505,000 veterans, over half a million veterans in this country today dating back to the Vietnam War who've received other than honorable discharges and didn't have even the narrow opportunity that I did, let alone the economic stability parts.

Ken Harbaugh:

Not to mention, perhaps, the most important part, which is that community of fellow vets who are there to have your back, and it's got to feel like that's torn away when you leave under those circumstances.

Kris Goldsmith:

It did. Yeah. I mean, I know not a lot of veterans from this generation walk into a VFW or American Legion Hall. That's not the way that our generation has, or the majority of our generation has sought that community. But that is an option for most people, and it was not an option for me. I was free to walk into the VFW Hall, and sit at the bar the way that any civilian was, but I couldn't be a member not for years until I started actually getting into DC and telling my story and getting things changed.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're going to go there, because that's the redemptive part of the story, and that's what Burn the Boats is about. But it's not just the VFW and the Legion. I mean, it's the post 9/11 organizations as well. I remember at Team Rubicon, we had a pro forma policy as did just about everyone that, for our most elite fellowship, you had to have an honorable discharge until we got an application from an extraordinary soldier with a story very similar to yours, and we made the judgment call. Like, "Holy shit. This guy has been wronged and we're his second chance." But that's rare. That's incredibly rare. Your second chance ended up opening the door for thousands of others. Tell us when you decided to fight back and what shape that fight took.

Kris Goldsmith:

So, there are two different ways that veterans who receive less than honorable discharges can appeal for VA benefits, or they can appeal directly to the DOD to receive a discharge upgrade. And because I had VA health care, it wasn't necessary for me to appeal to the VA for anything. The honorable discharge, the fully honorable discharge part of the GI bill is in statute. So it's not up to the VA to decide this guy got screwed, we want to give him the GI Bill.

So my avenue for redress was going to the Department of Defense, the Army Discharge Review Board and appealing for an honorable discharge. And the first time that I did it. I was hooked up with a pro bono legal service through a friend in a veteran community, and I thought it was a slam dunk. I was sitting down with a new lawyer. I was her first case working for a corporate law firm, her first pro bono case. And it was a relatively thin packet, but I thought it was pretty solid. I had a mental health diagnosis post Iraq before my suicide attempt. I had expressed suicidality before my suicide attempt. I sought treatment actively after getting out. And so I guess this is about a year, a year and a half after I got out of the Army. So coming into 2009 or so. So I appeal for an honorable discharge based on the lack of due process and the consideration of my mental health needs, which I was trying to get addressed but never got help.

It took about two years to get that rejection letter. The application process was basically just have this lawyer help me fill out a packet and send it away to the Army. Wait, and wait, and wait. Two years later, I get the denial. And so I appealed again. Had a new lawyer at the same firm, but this guy was a retired lieutenant commander from the Navy who became a lawyer. So he was a little more intimate with how UCMJ works and the injustices that I faced. And that packet increased to 800 pages or something with all this medical documentation of the diagnosis of PTSD, the continuous treatment, the attempts to recover. And a couple years later, that was denied again. Now thankfully, by the time that denial came around, which showed up on, I guess it might have been the fifth anniversary of my suicide attempt, I was in a better place.

And I had found out that I was eligible for Vocational Rehabilitation, Voc rehab, or VR&E. And I had started classes at community college. I still had to take out loans because I wasn't able to work while going to school at the time. And I was lucky that, by chance, I met a guy, this guy Chuck, who is the lawyer for the college. And he had worked for Senator Carl Levin, who at that that point in time, was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And as a senior legislative aide, his job was to draft legislation for about 20 years on Capitol Hill. So he knew how these problems were addressed, and helped me, basically, to put together a battle plan. And what the latest denial had stood on at that point was that they just completely ignored all of my medical history and they said, "Well just because you got a diagnosis of PTSD at the VA two or three months after getting out of the army, doesn't mean that he didn't get PTSD at some point between the day he was kicked out in the day was diagnosed at the VA," which is Madness. You can't prove a negative.

But again this discharge upgrade process is not a legal process. It's a board of five colonels who can come from any of the branches, whether it's Armor, or Infantry, or Intelligence. They may or may not have a deployment history, and they are judging people that they're usually just seeing the paperwork version of, and applying their own experiences, their own feelings and prejudices to, more often than not, just outright deny every application that came before them. So Chuck, after I told him basically what I've told you, he said, "Well, there ought to be a law," in the ultimate dad joke kind of way. And he's like, "Well, it's a good thing that I used to write laws. So, let's do this."

In this case, my very first bill, what ended up having the ugliest and even inaccurate name, The Military Mental Health Review Board Improvement Act, made it so that these discharge review boards could not ignore the medical records that were sent in by applicants. And that, rather than having just a random doctor, anybody with an MD look at those mental health records, they had to have someone specifically trained in mental health illnesses. And part of the latest rejection that I had gotten up to that point was because a podiatrist looked at my records and determined that my diagnosis of PTSD is not legitimate. So thankfully after that law, those podiatrists, if they are still the expert witnesses for these panels, they at least had to go through some specific training on PTSD.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's terrifying that this is how a system like this works. All the more so because it's so opaque. I mean, the process probably isn't even clear to those who were the victims of it, right? How much discovery did it take for you to realize how these boards are composed, and how the decisions are made, and why it takes two years in the first instance? That must have been a frustrating part as well.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So I had, up to that point, my first application, I had a high school education and nothing more. I had no background in research. High school doesn't teach you how to perform research. I had no idea how to put together a paper, how to even write an op ed, let alone present original research, and document, and find out what legitimate documentation is, and what it looks like, and how to present it. So it might as well have been me against the world. I had no idea what I was in for when I was applying to these review boards. I didn't understand any of the legalese, any of the legal phrases that are involved. I ultimately understood that this was a bunch of officers who were typically judging lower enlisted service members, and just giving them blanket notes. And maybe I wasn't too far off.

My only understanding of this whole process was that it's a bunch of officers who hate enlisted service members. And that's all I understood about the entire process. And I think that that's, and judging by my experience, interacting with other people in my situation, that seems to be all that most people know about the process. They don't understand that you need a lawyer to walk you through this. It's not something- though it is designed to be something that the applicant themselves can appeal for. I mean, the fact is that, unless you have a lawyer who's there to dot all your Is and cross all your Ts, any application that you send in is just going to be denied as poorly prepared.

Ken Harbaugh:

So you endure this Kafkaesque ordeal. But you not only endure it, you affect change. You win. Do you have any estimation of the numbers of people that your advocacy has impacted by forcing the consideration of medical history?

Kris Goldsmith:

I don't know. And it's difficult to know, because the discharge review boards across all of the branches are failing to comply with the law and with regulations all the time. They're supposed to, and they have been supposed to for, at this point, decades, they're supposed to take all of the records and post them online.

Ken Harbaugh:

The potential though is there for billions in unlocked benefits, if the labyrinth can be navigated, right?

Kris Goldsmith:

Correct. Yeah. And so, that was my first law. And for a while I averaged about a law year on the topic of bad-paper. The latest and most important was a bill introduced by O'Rourke when he was a congressman, and Senator Phil Murphy, the Honor Our Commitment Act. And what that has essentially done is made it so the VA is open to veterans with other than honorable discharges, meaning that, while it's always been law that veterans with OTH discharges can go to the VA and appeal for benefits. Right now, because of this latest law, veterans with other than honorable discharges, rather than having to sit around and wait years and years and years for the VA's own opaque process of reviewing characterizations of discharge, are eligible to get diagnosed. And if the VA diagnoses someone with something like service connected PTSD, or traumatic brain injury, they're granted access to the required mental health care to get that taken care of. And in realistic terms, this could open up a full suite of health care, because if you have PTSD and diabetes, it does you no good for the VA just to treat PTSD. And the VA knows that.

So now technically, we could say we opened up an avenue to health care for half a million vets in this country. But realistically, without the Trump Administration, which oversaw the lobbying and acted, or the Biden Administration now, without them doing a massive, massive, massive outreach campaign to these vets who are usually not part of the veteran community, or not members of veterans service organizations, unless they reach these people, the help is available, but not getting there.

Ken Harbaugh:

So your advocacy has expanded into a number of other areas. And I want you to bring us up to the present on your work around domestic violent extremism.

Kris Goldsmith:

Sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

And I, I guess, interested in the connective tissue there between your experience advocating for the restoration of benefits, and your connections to that violent extremist world. You were on a pretty dangerous glide path at one point. You're speaking from experience here, right?

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So, my introduction to extremism within the military and veterans communities came through my introduction to disinformation. So after a few years of being a veteran's advocate, I was eventually hired by Vietnam Veterans America, a major congressionally chartered veteran service organization. And the average member, the average employee at the time was in their early to mid 70s. And being a millennial, I was helping communication staff with their social media. And in doing that, I came across a fake version of our organization that was actually much more successful online than we were. This is an organization that's older than I am. And it's had a Facebook presence up to that point for 10 years. And this fake version of the organization, which was using the name, and using our logo, and pictures of the president of the organization on their Facebook page had over a quarter of a million followers when I found it.

And one of the things that made their growth so fast was that they were using our real veterans organizations image, presence, personality to push things like racist political commentary. And they were producing original pieces of propaganda, like a real news clip about a veterans monument being vandalized. They would racialize it, and take that 58 second clip, and turn it into a four hour thing on repeat, taking advantage of Facebook's algorithm. So that they get hundreds of thousands of views and stirring people up into fighting about the value of black veterans. They were sending out messages that were directly contradictory to, not just VBA, but all veterans service organizations.

We, in veteran service organizations, have served alongside undocumented immigrants. One of my best buddies in my unit was undocumented. Unfortunately left the Army still undocumented after years of service, two deployments. The Army and his chain of command never saw it fit to help them become a citizen. So we wouldn't push a message like veterans, not illegals, or veterans before refugees. So that discovery turned into a two year investigation, which turned into a 200 page report that I prepared for Congress, and the general public, and intelligence agencies to help them understand the ways that service members and veterans are being targeted by foreign entities online, not just for radicalization and to push extremist and racist messaging. But to engage in romance scams, and to fundraise to promote political candidates, and have people sending their, what they think are political donations, to people in Macedonia.

So, my instruction, when preparing a report, was to focus on foreign entities. And unfortunately, I got laid off by VBA due to COVID, and that allowed me to just chase my interests. And I started to realize over time that the bigger threat is not just this foreign born disinformation campaign, but the effect that it was having on Americans, and the danger that it was stoking. And a friend of mine, who I served with in the Army, came to tell me about a domestic extremist group that I had never heard of before, and basically gave me a quick instruction on the fact that there is an active explicitly self described fascist movement in this country. And since discovering these people, who literally think that my wife should be killed, if not sent out of the country, and same thing for most of my friends and family, these people are literal Neo Nazis.

And I feel like a lot of people hear things like that, and they think it's hyperbolic. I'm not talking about Trump supporters and calling them Nazis. I'm not talking about conservatives, even hard line... People who consider themselves extreme right wing. I'm talking about people who actually read fascist propaganda, who actually idolize Hitler and want to do everything that they can to see democracy as it exists in the United States come to an end. And basically build a white ethnostate.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why should we take these groups seriously, if they are relegated to the fringes, if they conduct themselves clownishly? Is it like any other extreme fringe group that makes a lot of noise, but there's not much there? Or has something changed?

Kris Goldsmith:

Well, these extreme fringe groups, they operate in ways that the average person, I think, might not expect. And they use terms like propaganda to describe the media that they produce. They are very deliberate in their attempts to radicalize other Americans, to push mainstream conversations into fringe territory. And frankly, we've seen that.

One of the most infamous things was the rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. The person who killed Heather Heyer, who ran their car into a crowd of peaceful protestors unprovoked, was a member of Vanguard America. Vanguard America no longer exists in the form that it once did, but was a massive organization, with members, predominantly young Americans from all around the country, who called themselves fascists. And they managed to convince one of their members to do a vehicular attack like that. But it's not the only example. In Massachusetts just a few weeks ago this happened again with an extremist targeting black people.

We saw January 6th with these extremist organizations that most people have never heard of before this year, The Three Percenters, The Oath Keepers, The Proud Boys. They attacked the citadel of democracy. They, during broad daylight and mostly without concealing their identities, attacked police officers. In many cases, they videotaped themselves doing it because they have been so radicalized that, what they were doing, they thought was right. They didn't think that they were committing a crime when they were trying to kill cops. And that, what we saw on January 6th, was not the crescendo, was not the end, it was not the fascism breathing its last breath in the United States. It was just the beginning.

Ken Harbaugh:

And you've made this your new mission. Can you tell us about your work now in exposing, and if you're able to share it, taking down one of these organizations?

Kris Goldsmith:

So what I do is I both monitor fringe social media platforms, and message boards, and I apply for and join some of these extremist organizations so that I can document what they're up to and expose it to the world. So, one of the organizations that I joined last year as part of this goal of taking down a fascist organization was called Patriot Front. It is the rebranded Vanguard America. So the newer version of the organization whose member killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. So these are people who, despite the fact that one of their members, one of their affiliates actually killed someone, committed a terrorist attack, they decided, "Well, we'll just rebrand, put a little more red, white and blue on it, and call it Patriot Front, and keep doing what we're doing."

Kris Goldsmith:

So, this is an organization that the SPLC, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti Defamation League have deemed as the most active hate group in America. And sadly, most Americans are unaware of it. Everybody's heard of the KKK, which hardly exists a little bit today, but they're irrelevant. Groups like the Patriot Front are almost entirely generation Z. They are our young boys and men who are looking towards the goal of seeing American democracy replaced with fascism and the creation of a white ethnostate. And while that may seem totally crazy and not realistic, and to a certain extent, it absolutely is, it's only unrealistic and it's only crazy if we stop them from trying to do what they're doing. And with everything that they do, they're taking advantage of the fact that hardly anyone has ever heard of them.

Kris Goldsmith:

Some of your listeners might be familiar with the events on the 4th of July in Philadelphia, where they may have seen headlines about fascists getting chased out of town by half dozen pissed off Philly residents. And that is what happened. But they got hundreds of members to commit to secretly traveling from across the country to meet in Philadelphia, to rent a bunch of moving trucks, to pack all in there, and then basically do a flash mob style march through the city of Philadelphia and engage in organized violence. These people are doing these acts of propaganda, expecting people to reject their racist messaging, and luring people into what amounts to their marching formation so that they can try to beat the hell out of them. They film it from just their desired angles, and then they produce propaganda for Telegram, and for Gab, and for other fringe social media network. And they use that to make their goal of presenting a white gang as something that's alluring to basically lonely losers on the internet who want to join a boys' and mens' club.

Ken Harbaugh:

It sounds so eerily similar to the ISIS MO.

Kris Goldsmith:

It is. Yeah, and they have studied these fascist movements and they are basically, just like ISIS, taking the 20th century propaganda styles, stunts, and materials, and producing it with a 21st century high production skill set. And it's proven to be effective. I mean, we saw ISIS create its own state, it's so nation state over the course of just a couple years. And Patriot Front looks at that type of thing, and says, "Hell, we can do that in the western world too."

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Kris it's been amazing having you on, albeit alarming. Would love to have you back as you dive deeper into these cesspits. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, what's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?

Kris Goldsmith:

Doing what I'm doing now in infiltrating these fascist organizations, and not just doing it anonymously. There are tons of activists around the country doing this work anonymously under the brand of antifa, anti-fascists. I don't consider what I'm doing, doing this work with my own face and name attached to it, particularly brave. But a lot of people seem to be pretty frightened at the prospect of what I'm dealing with. So maybe it's starting a company that's dedicated to openly combating fascism.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Kris, thank you. It's been a pleasure having you.

Kris Goldsmith:

Thank you. Appreciate it.

Kris Goldsmith:

Thanks again to Kris for joining me.

Learn more about his advocacy for veterans by visiting highgroundvets.org , and find him on twitter at @KrisGodlsmith85

Next time on Burn The Boats, I’ll be joined by Amy McGrath, the Marine Corps fighter pilot who took on Mitch McConnell in a grueling senate race, and who has a new book out about her lifetime of service to her country.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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