Are Military Hate Groups on the Rise?
Recent attacks involving active duty troops and military veterans have left many wondering if hate groups in the military might again be on the rise -- much like the spike seen in the 1990s.
In early August, two National Guardsmen on trial said that they joined the military for the specific purpose of receiving training that they could use for skinhead activities. The same month, a shooting rampage at a SikhTemple in Wisconsin that killed six was allegedly committed by an Army veteran with a long history of white supremacist involvement.
And Tuesday, five men were charged in connection with an anti-government militia that authorities say was led by Army soldiers from Fort Stewart, Ga. These soldiers stockpiled weapons and talked of bombing a park fountain, poisoning apple crops and ultimately overthrowing the U.S. government.
The association between hate groups and the military is not new. There was enough evidence of Marines joining the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to issue a directive against it.
Then in the mid-1990s the number of hate group crimes committed by servicemembers reached unprecedented proportions. The most infamous among these was that done by Timothy McVeigh, an avowed white supremacist and Army veteran, who used much of his combat engineer training in 1995 to blow up a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
The sum of those events generated a congressional hearing and a subsequent investigation by the Defense Department. Among its findings, the Pentagon identified more than 20 white supremacists at Fort Bragg, many attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Department of Defense policy leaves no room for racist and extremist activities in the military. We must - and we will - make every effort to erase bigotry, racism and extremism from the military," former Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. said at the time. "Extremist activity compromises fairness, good order and discipline, and, potentially, combat effectiveness."
The problem didn't end there, said experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In a report titled "Extremism and the Military," the SPLC states that in 2006, while facing intense pressure to meet manpower goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, some commanders and recruiters relaxed the standards that Weinberger sought to impose.
Relaxing those standards has led to an influx of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. A Defense Department investigator at Fort Lewis, Wash., found that 320 soldiers were involved in extremist activity.
"The case of Timothy McVeigh is instructive in that type of personality – a guy that goes into the military and comes out a committed racial warrior," said Randy Blazak, a published expert on hate groups and professor of sociology at Portland State University. "They view the military as access to training as well as the opportunity to get shots in on non-whites."
Blazak cited a 2004 case in southern Oregon where a group of soldiers came back from the war upset that they didn't get to kill any "brown people" and went on a crime spree that included attacking innocent civilians. Officials also discovered Aryan Nation graffiti in Baghdad during the U.S. occupation there.
Like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Blazak attributes some of the rise in the military's hate group population to the build-up on the eve of the war in Iraq.
"They were saying ‘yes' to people they may have said ‘no' to previously," he said.
Marine Corps veteran T.J. Leyden is a former neo-Nazi who now lectures groups – including teens – about his involvement with hate groups before, during, and after his days in uniform. He came from a broken home in southern California and was befriended by a skinhead group called "Circle One."
"I did ‘dirty work' attacking people, showed loyalty to the crew by being violent," Leyden said. "If something had to get done, I was the one who did it."
In time, his activities got him on the radar of law enforcement.
"I had one cop tell me ‘my only goal is to watch you go to prison,'" he said. "I knew what prison was like – I had cousins there -- and although I'm sure I could have survived since I knew how to hurt people -- I decided I was going to join the Marine Corps. If I was going to be a badass I was going to join the best of the best."
Although his body was covered with tattoos, his recruiter advised him to tell in-processing officials they weren't gang related. Once over that hurdle, he excelled in boot camp.
"I liked the Marine Corps," he said. "They taught me leadership skills, organizational skills, recruitment techniques."
So he started recruiting for hate groups among those he was serving with both above and below him in the chain of command.
"We took some of the military's recruitment styles – the tear-down-and-rebuild model," Leyden said. "Destroy self esteem and rebuild it. Belittle a kid and then when he does right you give him that positive reinforcement. Skinheads call it a ‘scoon.' The Marine Corps calls it ‘boot camp.'"
Leyden spent his free time "looking for the right kind, waiting for them to make a statement about something and I could jump in there and use it."
"There's no equality in the military," he'd say to those he was trying to recruit. "They don't pick the best for the job. They pick blacks, or Hispanics, or women."
His overall call to action was simple: "You need to be more than a warrior for your nation; you need to be a warrior for your race."
And he used music – a brand of racist heavy metal known as "Oi." "Music gets stuck in your head," he said.
As his enlistment wore on, his white supremacy stance got more visible. He got a "white power" tattoo on his arm. He added tattoos of Nazi SS bolts to his back and had 2-inch SS bolts added to his neck, which earned him the attention of his commanding officer.
"My CO tried to bring me up on charges for having that tattoo," he said. "So I went to legal and came up with a strategy that would have forced the CO to bring anyone who'd gotten a tattoo in the previous six months to be brought up on the same charges. The unit had a sergeant major and a gunny who had gotten tattoos in recent months."
Ultimately the CO relented and dropped the charges against him.
Leyden's status as an active duty Marine raised his profile with the white supremacist counterculture. He was connecting with national leaders of the White Aryan Resistance, Aryan Nations, and the National Alliance.
"I became important to them," he said.
While stationed in Hawaii, he joined other neo-Nazi Marines on liberty and intentionally got into fights in Waikiki. His conduct got him transferred back to headquarters in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
After being told by the head JAG there that he was being brought up on Uniform Code of Military Justice charges he threatened to create a "media circus." He was administratively separated the next day – for alcohol related incidents and violence, not anything related to his hate crime activities.
"I can show you my military paperwork. You're not going to find anything that says I was a racist. They didn't want that to be the reason."
Leyden went back to white supremacist community and started recruiting as a civilian once again. It wasn't until he heard his ideology coming out in statements from his young sons that he became soured on the culture and lifestyle. At that point he simply walked away.
"It's not hard," he said. "You just stop showing up to things."
Leyden believes the problem is as big as it ever was and that the military should be more proactive in getting rid of white supremacists.
"As a civilian you can't get rid of your neighbor if he's a neo-Nazi," he said. "But in the military he can be discharged. They're just not proactive enough."
Marine Corps officials took exception to that notion stating Marine Corps regulations clearly dictate the Corps' hard line on participation in supremacist or extremist organizations or activities.
So is this spike in recent high-profile events an indication of a growing hate group problem across all of the services?
Not necessarily, according to Blazak, who believes that traditional groups have declined in terms of their influence.
"Those folks who found a home in the white supremacist counterculture in the ‘90s and [2000s] are now flooding into more traditional conservative venues," he said. "And in a way it kind of reduces the threat."
But that doesn't mean the threat is gone.
"The real danger – sort of what we saw in the Sikh temple shooting – is that the folks who are left behind – left to kind of hold up the standards of the white supremacist cause – are fewer in number and therefore more desperate to get their voices heard."