Military.com | Drew F. Lawrence | May 6, 2022
On Jan. 6, 2021, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, leader and founder of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia group, was prepared to give an order he had no experience in giving.
That day, William Todd Wilson, a military veteran and one of Rhodes’ acolytes, dutifully stored a rifle, a pistol, 200 rounds of ammunition, body armor, and a camouflaged uniform in his hotel room before heading to the U.S. Capitol, according to Wilson’s account of that day included in court documents released Wednesday.
The arsenal was to be retrieved “if called upon to do so” — a directive that would have come from Rhodes, according to the filing, the man who built his militia on the recruitment of current and former service members and their subsequent allegiance to him.
The recruitment pitch, often peppered with military jargon, was grounded in cryptic descriptions of Rhodes’ own military service and a warped interpretation of the military’s core ethos, painting the militia leader as a grizzled veteran keen to take up arms to defend his view of America.
But a copy of his Army retirement paperwork reviewed by Military.com reveals previously undisclosed details about Rhodes’ career that show a soldier who served quietly and relatively unremarkably, despite the central role his military career plays in the fabric of the Oath Keepers. He was honorably separated from the Army after serving two years and seven months on active duty, leaving at the rank of specialist with a “temporary” physical disability, according to the document.
The Jan. 6 plot that his group hatched, as outlined in federal charges that have led to three guilty pleas from other Oath Keepers, leaned heavily on what they believed were elite military tactics. Militia members stored weapons across Northern Virginia, and “quick reaction force” teams were ready to storm the Capitol on Rhodes’ orders. The court report referenced the Oath Keepers’ use of a “stack” method, a military room-clearing formation that experts have pointed to as evidence of the Oath Keepers’ inflated sense of capability.
Rhodes has pleaded not guilty to the sedition charges.
Over half of the Oath Keepers arrested that January — including Rhodes — had prior military service, something that Rhodes actively sought in public recruiting pitches that leaned on his own background.
“We need prior military, LEO, security professionals, skilled martial artists, emergency medical, communications, and intelligence personnel,” wrote Rhodes in an archived blog post titled “Oath Keepers Deploying to DC to Protect Events, Speakers, & Attendees on Jan 5-6: Time to Stand!” posted two days before the attack on the Capitol.
“On your feet!” he wrote in November 2020 in a call to march on D.C. after the 2020 presidential election. “Stand up, hook up, check equipment … and shuffle to the door my brothers and sisters,” he added — a reference to airborne military procedures, ones he experienced himself more than three decades ago. He signed off the blog post, in part, as both “Founder of Oath Keepers” and “U.S. Army Airborne disabled veteran.”
Those messages were consistent with Rhodes’ angle since founding the Oath Keepers in 2009. He used prior military service, including his own, as a rallying call to his members, actively recruiting veterans, requesting their own military records, and instilling a quasi-military culture in his acolytes by requiring militia members to take a reinterpreted version of the military oath of enlistment — the result of which led many to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Tasha Adams, Rhodes’ estranged wife, said in an interview that, when she met Rhodes in 1991, five years after he was separated from the Army, he was assertive and intelligent, but unsatisfied with how short his military career was.
“He identified heavily [with the military] even then,” she said. “He wasn’t happy that he wasn’t able to be a career military person still, even years later.”
So far, six of the 11 January arrestees tied to the Oath Keepers plot have confirmed military service, consistent with the militia’s propensity to recruit military and law enforcement veterans. Rhodes even requests a DD-214 — an official document that gives a summary of a service member’s time in uniform — from potential recruits, according to the Oath Keepers’ website.
Andrew Mines, a research fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who focuses on those with military experience at the Capitol insurrection, told Military.com “the legitimacy that he brings to the movement when he tries to claim the prestige of our military is definitely outsized.”
Rhodes entered active duty on June 28, 1983, according to his own DD-214, reviewed by Military.com. During his service, he earned his parachutist badge; an Army Service Ribbon indicating he had completed his basic and initial training as an airborne infantryman; and two Army Achievement Medals, the most basic award “for meritorious service or achievement while serving in a non-combat area,” according to military regulation.
He earned a “sharpshooter” qualification on the M16, the Army’s primary rifle at the time of Rhodes’ enlistment. Sharpshooter indicates that Rhodes successfully shot anywhere from 30 to 35 targets out of 40 potential targets on a controlled range, the middlemost qualification for the Army’s rifle testing.
Mines told Military.com that militia groups often base their credibility on being tactically elite, with observers tending to “fixate” on alleged skills, but “when you talk to folks with a military background, it’s really run-of-the-mill stuff. There’s no ‘wow factor’ there.”
Rhodes’ last duty assignment was with E Company, 60th Infantry Regiment. The regiment transferred to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in 1996 as a basic training unit. He also earned a $5,000 enlistment bonus.
Rhodes separated from the Army in 1986. His record also notes almost eight months of “inactive service,” which could indicate time in the National Guard or Reserve components but does not state so explicitly.
The record characterizes his separation as a retirement, but it does not state the specific incident that caused his separation, nor does it indicate which veterans benefits, if any, he received because of it. The record is unsigned by Rhodes, but shows his name, date of birth and Social Security number.
By Rhodes’ account, he joined the Army out of high school, according to an archived biography on the Oath Keepers’ website, which has served as the basis for most public knowledge about his service. Rhodes attended basic and initial paratrooper training while stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then Fort Lewis, Washington, where he was “disabled in a rough terrain parachuting accident during a night jump,” according to the biography. That biography didn’t detail how long Rhodes served.
One of Rhodes’ lawyers, Jon Moseley, confirmed the Oath Keepers founder’s length of service and that he was separated in January 1986 after a training accident. Between 1986 and1989, he was going through the “bureaucracy” of getting disability benefits, of which his lawyer says he received 50%, but was not actively serving. Rhodes formally received his discharge paperwork in 1989. Moseley also said that Rhodes failed the Special Forces Qualification Course after the first week.
Moseley, who was disbarred in Virginia last month, told Military.com that he is still Rhodes’ lawyer, but as his case is “in transition” from hearings by Congress’ Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol to his criminal defense, Moseley’s involvement has decreased. Phillip Linder and James Lee Bright are now taking the lead in defending Rhodes.
Linder confirmed that Moseley’s status on the team is “in flux,” adding “I think he will not be on the team as it gets closer to trial.” Linder did not respond to Military.com’s request for any additions or corrections to Moseley’s January 2022 statements about Rhodes’ military record.
Moseley said that during his testimony to the Jan. 6 Committee in January, Rhodes was asked whether he was specifically recruiting military veterans and active-duty service members. He replied, “No, they come to us.”
As part of his plea agreement tied to his role in the plan, Wilson submitted court documents Wednesday alleging that Rhodes had tried to reach then-President Donald Trump after the riot at the Capitol began.
“Wilson heard Rhodes repeatedly implore the individual to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power,” the filing said. “This individual denied Rhodes’s request to speak directly with President Trump.”
When asked whether Rhodes was overselling his military service in comparison to how pertinent it seems to the Oath Keepers, Moseley said “he would reject the idea that his military service was a necessary part of what they did.”
Moseley added, “he was trying to encourage people to serve, teach them about, you know, what is a lawful order and what is not a lawful order.”
Mines, the extremism researcher, is unsurprised at Rhodes’ military record — in his research he’s studied extremists with both long and short careers. But for Rhodes, he says, “it just speaks to how easy it is for folks to transform their experiences into broader cults of personalities that end up building these movements.”
Mines emphasized that “it’s not anyone’s place to say you can’t build something [off your service] and your records being pretty sparse,” in reference to Rhodes’ relatively short service and how he used it to build the Oath Keepers — in comparison to, say, veterans using their experience for employment opportunities.
Adams, Rhodes’ estranged wife, said that he was using veterans’ affinity for their service.
“I don’t think he feels that sort of military pride,” she said. “He understands that other people feel it and exploits it in others.”
She noted that the Oath Keepers “actually made a little bit of sense when it first started,” alluding to the premise of continuing service to the Constitution out of uniform. But now, specifically after the insurrection at the Capitol, she says that the Oath Keepers “betrayed” their original purpose.
“There is no oath left,” she said.