The arms-bearing Oath Keepers have vowed to protect America from the tyranny of the federal government. I crashed a field training to see what they’re really all about.
Lying belly down in the dirt, the butt of a Stag semi-automatic rifle squeezed against my shoulder, I’m taking aim at what is commonly known as a tree. But today it’s a bad guy — an MS-13 gangbanger or a cartel sniper or a hit man. I’m supposed to be the good guy. I’m just doing a terrible job at it.
“Keep your head down!” Stewart Rhodes reminds me. An Army veteran and Yale graduate, Rhodes is the president and founder of Oath Keepers, a national organization of current and former law enforcement and military officers committed to protecting the Constitution, particularly its Second Amendment, from government overreach.
While the group’s notoriety stems largely from its role in last April’s armed standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, Rhodes insists today’s seven-hour field training isn’t about overthrowing a tyrannical government or gunning down heavy-handed police officers. His goal is to prepare ordinary civilians for the chaos and terror that could ensue after a catastrophic earthquake or a crippling economic collapse. When America’s good guys find themselves face-to-face with violent gangs and mobs, Rhodes wants them to be armed with both the firepower and the skills to fight back. He takes this mission very seriously, and I can imagine him grimacing at my current display of ineptitude.
“Have you lined it up yet?” he asks.
“Um, not yet.” Moments earlier, I’d watched Rhodes demonstrate the proper drop-and-crawl technique for “getting off the X,” military lingo for getting away from your last known location before re-engaging the enemy. The crawling part I could just about handle, but my squirming effort to assume a shooting position without lifting my head has so far been futile. It doesn’t seem like a good sign that I can’t see a thing through my scope. I check to see if my finger is in the way. Negative. Turns out I’m aiming squarely at the truck tire in front of me. When I lean left, the red dot reappears over a distant grove of trees. I line up the kill shot.
* * *
When Stewart Rhodes arrived in Oregon this past September for a series of speaking and training events, he was on a roll. Only ten days earlier, at the Lamp of Liberty National Press Club event in Washington, D.C., he delivered what he proudly calls his “sheepdog vs. sheepdog” speech, an impassioned ten-minute barn burner on the abuses of government power and the urgent need for Americans to rally in defense of their rights.
“At any time, we could have another Lexington Green,” he said, invoking the opening battle of the American Revolution. “It could happen any day.”
It would be easy to dismiss his rhetorical fireworks as the rabble-rousing of a right-wing demagogue — the kind of stuff that echoes endlessly through talk-show circuits. But Rhodes is no Sean Hannity. Last April, while Hannity was rallying support for Cliven Bundy from the comfort of his climate-controlled studio, Rhodes and a coalition of gun-toting Oath Keepers answered Bundy’s call to arms, converging on Bunkerville, Nevada, to face off against federal marshals from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Accounts of the days leading up to the showdown vary wildly, but here’s the upshot: For twenty-one years, Bundy refused to pay permit fees and back-fines for grazing his cattle on BLM land, and despite multiple court decisions in the BLM’s favor, Bundy continued to argue that his family’s ancestral claims to the land predated federal jurisdiction.
The arcane legal dispute exploded into a high-desert tête-à-tête shortly after the BLM began its operation to seize the contested cattle by force. As cell-phone videos from the scene went viral online — including one of police using a Taser to subdue a protestor — militia members flocked to Bundy Ranch by the hundreds, armed with military-grade assault rifles, tactical gear, and no shortage of ill-will towards the BLM’s “government thugs.”
On April 12, after a week of escalating tensions, horse-mounted ranchers and militiamen confronted federal SWAT teams at the Gold Butte reserve where the seized cattle were being held. Providing cover from a nearby overpass, pro-Bundy snipers stared down the Feds through the scopes of their rifles, waiting for their opposition to fire the first shot and ignite a twenty-first century revolution.
After a breathless hour-long standoff, the BLM finally blinked first, releasing Bundy’s cattle and pulling its officers off the ranch.
To hear Rhodes tell the story, the BLM’s retreat marked a resounding triumph for constitutional defenders of the American republic, a historic moment when ordinary citizens outmuscled an oppressive federal government. “It was not going to be a Waco, [with] well-trained professionals against untrained men, women and children in a church,” he told his audience in Washington D.C. “It was going to be [a] sheepdog-on-sheepdog bloodbath.”
Rhodes’s fiery talk has earned him some stiff enemies on the left, none more persistent than the Southern Poverty Law Center. On that group’s website, Rhodes is featured in his own 1,900-word “Extremist File,” a highlight reel of his most startling blusters, including his dystopian vision of a “Hitlery” Clinton presidency.
The SPLC has also enjoyed poking fun at some of Bundy Ranch’s less heralded moments, like when Rhodes pulled the Oath Keepers out of the militia camp after receiving “intel” that Attorney General Eric Holder had authorized a drone strike on the site. When the rumor proved false, leaders back at the militia camp voted to ban the Oath Keepers from Bundy Ranch for their act of treason. “You do not ever turn tail and run in the face of danger,” one of the security leaders said. “This is desertion that was done. This is dereliction of duty.”
In September, when I met Rhodes at an Oath Keepers event in southern Oregon, I knew very little of his explosive history, and he gave me no reason to suspect it. He was well spoken and even-tempered, asserting that he was as troubled by the military-style police response in Ferguson as by the BLM’s heavy-handed tactics on Bundy Ranch. “Pointing sniper rifles at protestors is completely illegitimate,” he said, earnestly. “I don’t care if it’s a black kid in Missouri or a white rancher in Nevada. Neither should have sniper rifles pointed at them.”
On the issue of constitutional rights, Rhodes comes armed with more than a long-barreled rifle. The forty-nine-year-old Army veteran is a 2004 graduate of Yale Law School, a student of the Bill of Rights and a sought-after speaker — and with his sleek glasses and graying goatee, he totally looks the part of an erudite academic.
But Rhodes ultimately chose a more activist path, founding the Oath Keepers in 2009 with a mission to educate law enforcement and military officers of their sworn oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Revolution wasn’t the goal, at least not publicly. The Oath Keepers instead called on members to willfully disobey any of ten unconstitutional orders, from disarming the American people to turning U.S. cities into giant concentration camps. The tactics were “Gandhi-like,” Rhodes explained in 2010. A form of civil disobedience.
Rhodes has yet to address how Gandhi might feel about Bundy Ranch or the notion of sheepdog on sheepdog bloodbaths, but he continues to peddle the Oath Keepers as a nonpartisan citizens’ watchdog group — sort of like the ACLU, but with guns. “The left only pays attention when it’s one of their guys being targeted, and the same with the right,” he told me in September. “My goal is for Americans to be truly consistent about defending peoples’ rights.”
Rhodes may have fed me the media-friendly version of his message that day, but not every Oath Keeper shares his capacity for restraint. Shortly before taking the stage for his keynote speech, he introduced me to Brandon Rapolla, an ex-Marine and self-described jarhead with arms big enough to mush my 140-pound frame into a human smoothie. He was wearing dark sunglasses, a “Victory Over Oppression” T-shirt and a hard expression on his face that said, loud and clear, he wasn’t the type to take shit from anybody — ever. Including me.
Nerves took hold. After first fumbling my notebook to the ground en route to a handshake, I then stumbled into a rambling monologue that seemed unlikely to ever coalesce into a question. “I can’t remember who told me…but I think he said you weren’t an Oath Keeper until the Bundy Ranch thing…so I was just wondering about your story and how you…uh…how you got involved in that and how you—”
“How I got involved?”
Yeah, exactly. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do much more talking. Rapolla had plenty to say.
“There are people who protest. That’s cool. I’m not a protestor,” he explained. “I carry all the time, and I’ve got my gear in my truck right now. It’s called being a Minuteman. Within minutes, I’m ready to go.”
Last April, Rapolla didn’t hesitate once he heard about the skirmishes in Nevada between federal marshals and the Bundy family. He told his wife and son he was leaving, explained that there was a chance he might not come back alive, and packed his rifles and tactical gear into the truck. When Rapolla arrived at Bundy Ranch, he hoped he wouldn’t have to kill anyone, and he certainly hoped he wouldn’t be killed. But to uphold his duty as an Oath Keeper, he had to be prepared to do both.
“We don’t want to kill other Americans,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt anybody else. But if you hurt the American people, we will annihilate you. And we will die doing it.”
* * *
Only three days removed from my encounter with Rapolla — and wearing the least hipster T-shirt I can find in my closet — I head out for the Oath Keepers’ field training, regretting my extended absence from church services and considering how I might justify my delinquency to Saint Peter, should it come to that. I find it only mildly comforting that I’m joined by my reporting partner, Julianne, who strikes me as someone more likely to show proficiency with a magic wand than an assault rifle. So that makes two of us.
Our instructions are to meet the group in the fittingly named town of Independence, Oregon, and then follow a guide car to the private farm where we’ll be training. As Julianne and I arrive at the rendezvous point, I expect to see a huddle of colossal ex-Marines sizing us up from behind dark-tint sunglasses. Instead, we’re met by Tom, a gangly evangelist and part-time landscaper with as much military experience as the two of us combined — which is to say, none.
“Did we miss the caravan?” I ask.
“A group of twelve just left,” he says. “But we’ve got two more coming.” While we wait for the other stragglers, Tom walks back to his truck and grabs us a pair of matching camo pullovers, complete with American flag patches on the left sleeve. At least now we will look the part.
By ten a.m., the full cadre of trainees has arrived at the training site, a sprawling field of late-summer golden grass that yields to a dense stand of trees at the far end of the property. Adjacent to the gravel access road where the cars are parked, a wall of rubber tires, stacked seven high, forms a semicircular backstop for the makeshift shooting range.
Today, the tires will not be under assault. As Rhodes calls us together for instructions, he explains that there will be no live ammunition allowed during the training, and no side arms either. “Do any of you need to return a pistol to your car?” he asks. A handful of men reluctantly comply.
Besides Julianne, the group includes only one woman, easily identified by her hot pink rifle. Julianne and I are by far the youngest, and judging by the curious glances in our direction, I suspect Rhodes didn’t advertise that a pair of journalists would be tagging along. He quickly confirms my hunch.
“Jim, this is your property — are you okay with these two staying?” he asks, motioning in our direction.
Jim stoically nods his approval. But the gentleman beside him is less easily persuaded. “Do you own a gun?” he asks me.
I’m about to fail my examination miserably.
“I do not.”
He turns his head away with a look of disapproving bemusement, but doesn’t raise an objection. Rhodes breaks the judgmental silence. “I’ve become a little jaded with the media, but you seem like a straight shooter,” he says. “You’re from Eugene, right?”
“Well, Brandon Rapolla lives next door in Springfield. You’ll have to deal with him if you don’t treat us fairly.”
* * *
About an hour into the training, my “buddy partner” Rob and I are standing in the middle of the field, serving our turns as the hypothetical bad guys — slightly more realistic targets than the unsuspecting tree.
Rob is a retired airline pilot with a neatly trimmed beard and a full head of blizzard-white hair. As my buddy partner, he’s responsible for periodically checking my gun — a borrowed semi-automatic rifle — to make sure I’m not stealthily stuffing the magazine with bullets during the changeovers between drills. He completes this task dutifully, but he seems most enthusiastic about the challenge of training me as his apprentice. Already I’ve received a crash course on how to hold my gun and where to keep it pointed and why, someday, I might need to use it.
Rob says the quasi-apocalypse will happen something like this: Driven into the ground by runaway debt or hyperinflation, the U.S. economy will go belly up — and not like the recession in 2008, or even the Great Depression of the ’30s. This time it’ll be an implosion. Within weeks, police officers will stop receiving paychecks from the government, and as conditions deteriorate, they’ll start staying home to protect their families. The streets will be left in chaos, a battle of sheep against wolves.
“The good guys outnumber the bad guys 1,000 to one,” Rob explains. “The problem is that 990 of those 1,000 are sheep. We like to think of ourselves as sheepdogs. We won’t do a blastin’ thing until the wolves attack the sheep.”
Rob’s doomsday scenario is only one of the popular predictions. Some Oath Keepers believe the biggest threat will come from drug cartels surging north from the porous Mexican border. Others expect that natural catastrophe will lead to looting and violence by armed mobs of profiteers.
For all the various collapse theories, Rhodes has a single prescription: arm and train the American people for mobilization at a moment’s notice. In 2013, he launched an effort to help communities develop twelve- to fourteen-person preparedness teams with experts in security, medical care, communications and engineering. His model is based on the U.S. Army’s Special Forces ‘A-Team,’ and Rhodes says it is part of what separates the Oath Keepers from other militia groups. “I think we’re more mature and more professional,” he says. “A lot of these militias that pop up focus on firearms and gear too much. They didn’t serve in the military and it’s their chance to live some dream they didn’t accomplish.”
Rhodes is wary of the “wild-eyed militia” stereotype, and parts of the training session seem intended to combat it. Before breaking for lunch (sandwiches provided!), he leads us over to the edge of the trees for a lesson on “tracking,” a skill we’ll need when cell phone service disappears and sleuthing becomes the only way to track down friend or foe. For several minutes, Rhodes has us studying footprints in the grass and listening intently for sounds of movement in the woods. “Close your eyes,” he says, “and try to expand your range of awareness deeper and deeper into the forest.”
As I let my eyelids settle, I can only imagine the spectacle. Here we are, a pack of strangers, standing silently by a grove of trees, eyes closed, ears perked, senses drifting deeper into the forest — and assault rifles dangling restlessly at our sides.
* * *
After lunch, our focus shifts to learning basic team tactics — like how to walk down a street in formation so that no one gets their head blown off by friendly fire. With that box checked, Rhodes leads us into the woods to practice charging and retreating as a unit, first as two- and three-man teams, then as six-man teams with three-man pods. The key, as Rhodes reminds us ad nauseum, is to always have at least one team member laying down “suppressive fire” while the others scamper for a more strategic position. Speed is essential. Every moment upright is a moment of vulnerability, so Rhodes gives us only three seconds to dart behind a tree and drop back to the ground.
It’s not easy work. By three p.m., our crew has thinned out to about half its original size, and even the remaining trainees are beginning to wear out. “Brian, are you done?” Rhodes asks, seeing him sitting on the tailgate of a parked truck.
“No, just resting my back,” he says wearily. “Us old guys need to watch out for our bodies.”
Brian’s back isn’t the afternoon’s first casualty. While executing a drill in the trees, Vern ducked away from combatant gunfire and landed headfirst in a hive of yellow jackets. A few minutes later, Ed tripped and fell over a concealed tree branch as he scrambled through the brush. “Fuck!” he grumbled. “I can’t train in this shit!”
“You’re fine,” Rhodes replied coolly. “Just watch your step.”
So far, I’ve remained unscathed, but I’m beginning to feel a distinct resentment for Rhodes as he stands there barking instructions at us from the sidelines. He reminds me of that big kid on the block growing up — the one who somehow always snatched the role of general or commander in whatever war game he invented for us to play. The six of us are his foot soldiers, marching, diving and crawling through the underbrush with varying levels of allegiance to the cause, but all equally unlikely to challenge his edicts. That would mean exclusion from the club. That’s not an option.
So when Rhodes issues his latest orders to “Get prone! Get prone!” — meaning “drop to the ground” — Brian, Rob and I grudgingly go down behind a cluster of trees. This time, I’m wounded. A prickly thorn through the palm. My hand bleeds as I remove nature’s shrapnel.
Next to me in the trenches, Brian is lying awkwardly in a tangle of roots, leaves and twigs. Still he manages a wry smile. “This would be much less painful if we were playing Navy.”
Rob considers the thought, looking serious. “Well, if shit really does hit the fan, we won’t be playing,” he says. “Pray to God it doesn’t come to that.”
After seven hours of combat prep, it’s hard not to at least think, “What if it does come to that?” What if, by some wicked mechanism, we actually find ourselves in this broken world we’ve been imagining, subjected to lawless streets and confronted by killers?
I recall first hearing Rhodes speak on that topic in September and not quite knowing whether to feel inspired or unsettled by his stirring talk of Aristotelian philosophy (“Courage is the first virtue”) and belief in the power of an armed citizenry. On its surface, there’s an undeniable romance to Rhodes’s vision of self-determination, to this notion that we can all be sheepdogs, if we choose, and protect the flock from danger. Maybe it’s one of those “crisis of manhood” things The New York Times likes to opine about. In this age in which we don’t build our own houses, or hunt our own meals or chop down our own firewood, at least we can still carry our guns around and fend off bad guys, dammit. After all, on a remote plot of farmland in rural Oregon, even I can pass as a sheepdog, crawling around in the dirt and training my unloaded rifle on some tree we’ve designated the enemy.
But as I return my borrowed rifle and head home to my lefty college town — the adrenaline now subsiding — I think about the problem with all this, about the thorny issue of what happens when a training ground becomes a battle ground and when good and evil don’t dress up in their usual Hollywood costumes. If the Bundy Ranch episode offers any clues, that world would be messy. Sure, by Rhodes’s account, the events there played out in black-and-white, a heavy-handed government trying to stomp on the rights of American citizens and a coalition of freedom fighters rising to repel them.
But for the casual observer, for the uninitiated like me, what unfolded in the Nevada desert felt more like violent chaos than righteous resistance. Militia groups squabbled and nearly came to blows over a contrived drone threat. Federal marshals unleashed Taser blasts on a group of protestors. And at the height of it all, grown adults with military-grade rifles stared each other down from across a canyon, apparently prepared to kill another human being over a dispute about grazing fees.
Wolves and sheepdogs? To hell with all that. Can I just be a dove?