At the risk of sounding cliché, June 8, 2014, started like any other day. I woke up at 5 am, got my ACUs on, and began the 45-minute drive to work. My commute was met with the same excitement it always was, as I got to take a vacation from my troublesome home life for a day with the military. As ironic as it may sound, I felt a sense of security and safety with my unit.
I vividly remember pulling into the parking lot, hearing the desert sand crunching under my tires, and finding a spot in the shade - something clutch in the desert. The scorching desert sun made finding a shady spot critical, especially when driving a car with no A/C (temperatures in a parked car in the desert sun could reach over 140 degrees). I pulled into the open parking spot and flipped down my car’s mirror to make sure my uniform (and, most importantly, my hair) was in order. U.S. Army over the heart? Check. Sleeves buttoned? Check. Hair gel still holding firm? Check. All was good, so I turned off my car, hopped out, and walked through the armory to await first formation.
Again, everything was so unabashedly normal.
I was still relatively new to my unit. It was just my third drill weekend after returning home from my initial military training. Just two weeks prior, I was in Fort Irwin, California, attached to one of our sister Troops to play OpFor against a rotating unit. I earned an Army Achievement Medal for my work in the box, and I was happy, motivated, and feeling great.
That morning, I said, “what’s up” to some of my buddies before our first sergeant told the unit to fall in for first formation. I stepped in line with my squad, and our platoon sergeant went down the line, getting full accountability from each squad. Then we got our briefing from the 1SG for the day before falling out and going about our way. On this particular drill weekend, our task was general job training and time with our sergeants for a counseling session. My squad planned to knock out those morning tasks, then head out a little early for lunch, about 11 am, so we could be back early and prepare for the briefing we were tasked with giving the unit after lunch. The preparation was supposed to be a little rehearsal as well as making notecards to remember key points. It was one of my first briefings to the unit, so we wanted to make sure I was squared away. Plus, we were excited about lunch. My squad leader and I passed our PT test the day before, running my fastest time ever, so we planned to celebrate with some pizza. We decided on CiCi’s Pizza because they had some delicious breadsticks we were both hyped to eat.
Because of me, that plan was slightly derailed. I took the counseling time with my sergeant as an opportunity to have a heart-to-heart about things going on at home. I explained my goals but also discussed some personal stressors. My father was unemployed, and I took care of my grandmother, ailing from Alzheimer’s. Within a year, I went from being in high school to military training to a home life completely different from when I left. I was taking on these massive responsibilities to help support and take care of my family, but ultimately I was just an 18-year-old kid trying to learn to navigate my feelings.
As we began our drive, we noticed it was a little later than anticipated – about 11:20 am, so we changed our plans and went to a food place closer to base. This way, we would make it back to base faster and have time for our little rehearsal. I don’t remember where we went for food or what I ate. It was just another meal on just another day.
The next thing I can recall is walking back into our armory to some slightly panicked soldiers looking extremely relieved to see us. It was at this moment I learned a 20-minute conversation potentially saved both of our lives.
Local news was reporting a shooting at CiCi’s Pizza – the same CiCi’s Pizza we were headed to – and “two men in uniform” had been targeted and killed. Later news reporting would inform us that the perpetrators, who used the username “USATruePatriot” on social media, were filled with hate against the federal government and continually spoke of an impending “revolution.” The common theme of the perpetrator’s messages was the government was oppressive and corrupt. They were fighting tyranny and interested in spreading a “truth.” The duo participated in the Bundy Ranch standoff and soon after proclaimed they were willing to “die for liberty” because the “fascists” were coming for them. In the eyes of the perpetrators “they” (the government/elites) were holding the people down and the only way to fight it was with bloodshed. In their penultimate act of defiance, they draped a Gadsden flag on one of the officers they ambushed after carving swastikas into their heads, then drove to a Walmart to continue their rampage only to meet their demise.
At the time, the incident was largely pushed out of my head. It was a tragic event and I felt deeply for the officers’ friends and families, but personally, I was never in harm’s way. You can call it a “lucky” event, that I wasn’t there, but throughout the course of our lives, we may have multiple lucky events (such as leaving 5 mins earlier and escaping a car accident) and never even realize it. Plus, their views were niche and largely isolated to small cliques that I didn’t expect to face anywhere except Facebook comment sections ever again.
Over the ensuing six years, I began to notice similar anti-government sentiment showing up more and more in daily life. It was like a spidey-sense was tingling, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. I began to see phrases like “the government’s coming for our guns” spouted by the same people saying we need to “restore law and order.” I began to see Blue Lives Matter flags flying alongside Gadsden flags. And there was a strong movement to expose government corruption and “drain the swamp.”
COVID hit and I could see both sides of the lockdown debate. I wasn’t too alarmed when I saw people claiming it was tyranny and that aforementioned spidey-sense I was feeling didn’t act up when people stated we needed to fight against it. The intersection of public health and freedom has been a long-debated topic, so resistance to lockdowns is understandable and predictable. And I could also see the peculiarities with the fact that the government was mandating masks, while also enforcing a tax on them. I began to see a group known as the “Three Percenters,” an organization that sounded familiar (without knowing why) show up to anti-mask/lockdown rallies (as well as counter Black Lives Matter protests). But it was a challenging time for the nation and none of us knew how to feel or what to do.
However, after the 2020 election, that strange spidey-sense feeling came back and it began to make sense why. I saw people claiming allegiance to “Three Percenters” and other militant-type groups show up more frequently. Naturally, I researched the group and realized it’s the same organization the CiCi’s Pizza shooters claimed allegiance to. Instead of the Bundy Ranch to clash with BLM (Bureau of Land Management), they were showing up to “Stop the Steal” rallies, as well as clashing with BLM (Black Lives Matter). Imagine my confusion when the same group who fought with authorities, even ambushed and murdered two of them, is now aligned firmly with “backing the blue.” My perplexion continued to grow when I began to realize public figures were claiming a national election was fraudulent, alluding to the notion that the deep state was holding them down, and how “the people” needed to “fight for what ‘they’ stole” without providing much evidence to support the huge claims. Alarmingly, I began to see some of my peers in the military heavily siding with those public figures, blindly believing the claims and disregarding any evidence showing those statements were false.
And then January 6th, 2021, happened.
These self-proclaimed “patriots” with American Flags, Gadsden flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, and Trump flags broke into one of our Nation’s sacred institutions, attacking any law enforcement officials along the way. Watching police officers get brutally beat down with blue lives matter flags may seem ironic until you dive deeper. The people who perpetrated the 2014 CiCi’s Pizza shooting and the 2021 Capitol Riots are from the same train of thought. The only difference is, in 2021 it was advantageous to their cause to align themselves with law enforcement and the military. The second they lost that advantage, they turned on us.
And those public figures busy stroking the flames of chaos? Many immediately, and predictably, backpedaled with statements like “no reasonable person” believed those claims were valid - Clearly that’s fucking false. Some even continue to push the narrative, only backpedaling when convenient (usually in the courts) and doubling down to supporters. It’s pretty disturbing, and the consequences of their selfish, power-hungry claims are likely going to extend through this next decade. The shortsightedness is eerily reminiscent of Operation Cyclone, which helped the mujahideen push back the Soviets, but created a monster later generations needed to deal with 20 years later.
Whoever is reading this, if you’re a veteran, active military, law enforcement official, etc., we need to be aware of the ideologies we align ourselves with and the people we support. A small victory today could be the beginning of tomorrow’s colossal defeat.
I’ve spent months mulling over whether I should share this story. But my mind quickly changed when I saw my fellow service members and police officer friends reacting negatively to the Capitol Riot hearings. Unfortunately, many were quick to cast judgment on the police officers and side with the rioters. It needs to be said that the people who rioted at the Capitol, with paraphernalia claiming the opposite, are NOT our friends or supporters. Neither are the people who encouraged or incited it. They are not patriots, and they do not speak for the heart of this country. They are shamelessly using us to further their cause and will turn on us the second they don’t need us.
I saw Capitol Police officers, who put their uniform on like I did on that day in 2014, getting maced with bear spray, crushed between doors, beaten with fire extinguishers, and knocked unconscious by a flag. An angry mob of people claiming to love the military and law enforcement committed these acts.
We have had multiple officers die by suicide in the months since the riots, and one die as a direct result of the actions of the rioters. Yet still, with all the evidence to the contrary, my public service peers are siding with the rioters - calling the officers testifying “Pelosi shills” and “government plants.” It’s a stark change from the strong condemnation expressed to the actions committed in the CiCi’s Pizza shooting, yet we’re wondering why officers are committing suicide, leaving the job, and suffering from mental health duress.
It’s easy to fall back into confirmation bias and feel disconnected from those officers because it fits an internal narrative. But at the end of the day, we all put our pants on one leg at a time and drive to work ready to serve the public. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters serving honorably in uniform, instead of turning on them for a cause and ideology that doesn’t care about us or most of the country. We need to keep each other honest and continue to strive for the American dream because we can’t achieve it while divided.
Written By Christopher R Mendell Jr.
January 6, 2022