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Guard Unit Claims Racism
Albuquerque Journal | April 25, 2007At a base in Kuwait last May, nearly 60 members of a New Mexico National Guard unit were told to strip to their athletic shorts so a military investigator could check them for gang tattoos.
No gang tattoos were found on the soldiers in Task Force Cobra, and some alleged the Rio Rancho-based unit was targeted for the search because it had a large number of Hispanics.
"Is the Army racist? No. Are there racists in the Army? Yes," said state Adjutant Gen. Kenny C. Montoya, who commands the Army and Air National Guard in New Mexico.
The tattoo search was based on an uncorroborated allegation made by a soldier from Wisconsin that Task Force Cobra was rife with gang members.
During the search, one New Mexico soldier complained "that he didn't feel like an American today," according to Army documents. Another reportedly cried, saying it reminded him of a similar incident that occurred when he was younger because he was Hispanic.
Another soldier said the "Gestapo-like" tattoo check was the lowest point of his military career.
Montoya said his long-pending promotion to brigadier general was scuttled by Army brass because of his allegation that Task Force Cobra was racially targeted for the tattoo search.
He can continue to serve in the job of adjutant general without the promotion but said, "The career's over in the minds of the active duty (Army) guys."
Task Force Cobra is made up of nearly 190 soldiers from various National Guard units around New Mexico. It was deployed in November 2005 to provide security for military convoys in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. The task force returned in November 2006.
After the first group of soldiers in Task Force Cobra was cleared of having gang tattoos, unit leaders and senior Army officers blocked the planned check of more unit members the following day.
"It is too easy for this to be viewed as a witch hunt ... ," a top Army lawyer wrote in an email.
Army investigations later found that the tattoo search was lawful and that there was no evidence that Task Force Cobra was racially targeted by military investigators.
"I'm embarrassed to say that's how the Army is; they don't want to admit mistakes," Montoya said in a recent interview.
The events that led to the tattoo search began a month earlier and thousands of miles away, according to Army documents obtained by the Journal.
Military investigators reported to Army leaders in Washington, D.C., in late April 2006 that there was no overt gang activity among troops in Iraq.
A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times published a story about increased gang activity in the Army. The headline read: "Gangs claim their turf in Iraq."
The story quoted an Army National Guard sergeant from Wisconsin who said he had taken hundreds of photographs of gang graffiti in Iraq, much of it by Chicago-based gang members serving in the military.
The sergeant also said that he had seen gang tattoos on soldiers in Iraq and that he suspected a company of soldiers was rife with gang members.
Military investigators quickly began an inquiry to confirm or disprove the sergeant's allegations.
In an interview with investigators on May 6 at Camp Navistar on the Iraq-Kuwait border, the sergeant identified Task Force Cobra from New Mexico as the unit he believed was rife with gang members.
The sergeant said he had seen gang tattoos on soldiers in the unit and had witnessed soldiers throwing gang signs while they were assigned to Camp Navistar.
Members of the military are prohibited from taking part in gang- related activity if the gang is an extremist organization -- for example, it advocates discrimination, hate crimes or violent acts.
A soldier can face disciplinary action, including discharge, for having a tattoo of an extremist group.
After military investigators learned members of Task Force Cobra were then at the Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait, the stage was set for the tattoo search.
On May 23, agent Paul McGuire with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command told the commander of Task Force Cobra about the planned tattoo check.
The commander didn't move to block the search, but there was a backlash even before it was conducted.
A lieutenant with Task Force Cobra found the Chicago newspaper article on the Internet and identified it as a possible reason for the search.
A sergeant with the New Mexico unit also told one of his superiors "that predominantly we are Hispanics and that some soldiers were feeling that they were being discriminated against."
McGuire arrived at the Ali Al Salem base on May 25 to conduct the tattoo check and was immediately confronted about his expertise in gang tattoos.
A lieutenant with Task Force Cobra told the agent that all his platoon sergeants had law enforcement backgrounds and would know if gang activities were occurring.
Nevertheless, soldiers were told to remove their shoes, socks and shirts for the tattoo search. They were checked in small groups in the command trailer.
Several soldiers complained during the search that the unit had been targeted because of its large number of Hispanics.
There were also criticisms that the check was based on insufficient evidence, that it was a violation of soldiers' rights and that it was undignified.
"During the viewing, there was high tension among the troops who related they felt as though they were being picked on ... because they were Hispanic and National Guard," McGuire later said.
One soldier complained "that this was not the military, that he didn't feel like an American today."
A sergeant reportedly cried, telling a fellow soldier the search "reminded him of a time when he was younger and something similar to this happened because of his race."
About six soldiers initially refused to be searched but complied after being threatened with arrest and charges by the investigating agent.
A total of 58 soldiers were checked for gang tattoos. Although none was found, more members of Task Force Cobra were scheduled to be searched the following day.
'A witch hunt'
On the afternoon of May 25, after the first of the two planned searches of Task Force Cobra had been completed, the commander of the unit returned from a visit to another base.
Capt. Ivan Forrest Salkin ordered that there would be no more tattoo checks until the investigating agent produced a search warrant, according to Army documents.
Salkin said he had no idea that the tattoo check was a big issue with his soldiers, that the search was humiliating and that he objected to his soldiers being threatened with arrest and charges for refusing to comply.
As word of the tattoo search worked its way up the chain of command, a senior Army officer and a top Army lawyer also expressed concern.
"It is too easy for this to be viewed as a witch hunt, where all of the unit members are presumed guilty until proven innocent," Col. Ralph M.C. Sabatino, a judge advocate, wrote in an email to investigating agent McGuire on May 26, a day after the tattoo search.
"The fact that all of this is being done on the uncorroborated vague and non-specific accusations of a soldier ... only exacerbates the problem," Sabatino added.
A senior Army officer in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Bruce A. Casella, officially blocked the planned second round of the tattoo check.
The search was discontinued in part because the initial check of Task Force Cobra had found no gang tattoos and because other information on alleged gang activity provided by the Wisconsin soldier had been found to be false.
Within days of the tattoo search, Casella ordered an investigation into the conduct of agent McGuire.
The investigation found that the tattoo search was lawful and authorized and that McGuire had acted appropriately, according to Army documents.
The investigation also concluded, "There is nothing to indicate ... any type of racial profiling or discrimination when selecting personnel to be checked for gang tattoos."
McGuire said during the investigation that the ethnic makeup of Task Force Cobra had played no role in determining which soldiers would be checked for tattoos.
McGuire's boss at the Criminal Investigation Command also denied discrimination, saying, "I love the Hispanic people. I speak fluent Spanish. I served a mission for my church for two years in Santiago, Chile."
The Army investigation didn't address whether any other military unit deployed for the Iraq war had been subjected to a search for gang tattoos.
Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command, said he couldn't disclose whether any other unit had been searched for tattoos, saying it's the command's policy not to disclose investigation techniques.
Grey said an internal inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Command found its agent had acted within the law in conducting the tattoo check of the New Mexico unit.
'A clear message'
Within days of the search, Montoya complained to Maj. Gen. Casella and requested an apology be made to Task Force Cobra. None was given.
Montoya was more pointed in a letter the following month to Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, then chief of staff of the Army.
The adjutant general wrote that Task Force Cobra "was racially targeted and illegally searched for body tattoos just because the unit consists of a large number of Hispanic surnamed soldiers."
Montoya also wrote that he had "been receiving a clear message from different directions that my federal recognition (as a brigadier general) has not occurred because of my last name."
"General Schoomaker," he wrote, "let me know how I can help our Army to end their discriminatory practices, both now and in the future."
Schoomaker didn't write back to Montoya. A member of Schoomaker's staff responded that Montoya could pursue a complaint over his promotion with the inspector general of the Department of Defense. Montoya declined.
Montoya, a colonel, became eligible for the rank of brigadier general when he was named adjutant general in 2003 by Gov. Bill Richardson. Adjutant general is a job position and not a rank.
A General Officer Federal Recognition Board for the Army National Guard recommended in June 2004 that Montoya be nominated for brigadier general.
However, the Army held the nomination from Senate confirmation because of complaints about Montoya's conduct, according to military records.
In a memo dated Dec. 20, Francis J. Harvey, then secretary of the Army, overturned the recommendation that Montoya be recognized as a brigadier general.
Harvey cited two substantiated allegations. One involved an aircraft flyover for a Roswell car dealer in 2005. The other was that he improperly directed a subordinate in 2003 to be placed on leave.
The Army secretary said Montoya's promotion to brigadier general could be resubmitted to a General Officer Federal Recognition Board but that the board would weigh the allegations.
Montoya said he has been told by high-level military sources in Washington that his accusations of racism in the Army are the true reasons behind his promotion being further delayed, if not killed.
He said he has also angered Army leaders in Washington with complaints about training and housing provided to New Mexico National Guard members.
"I sealed my own fate," Montoya said. "Would I do it differently? No. ... If I can't ask the hard questions, how do I really represent our guardsmen and their needs?"
Army leaders in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment on Montoya's promotion.
Montoya, who has served 25 years as an officer, said he doesn't believe he will pursue another board recommendation for promotion to brigadier general.
Because of his job as adjutant general, he is allowed to wear the one star of a brigadier general but would retire as a colonel if not recognized as a general before then.
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