Brandon Russell had a tattoo of a radiation symbol on his arm when he enlisted in the Florida National Guard in 2016.
The three-bladed symbol didn't raise alarms at the time, but should have been a warning sign. Russell was the co-founder of a dangerous neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division, considered one of the deadliest in the country. The tattoo represented "atomwaffen," which means "atomic weapon" in German.
The soldier was later sentenced to five years in prison after bomb-making materials were found in his Florida apartment. But when he was asked while chatting on the now-defunct Iron March website in 2016 whether he was worried about being "found out" during Army basic training, he gave a troubling response.
"I was 100% open about everything with the friends I made at training," Russell wrote on Iron March, which has been linked to violence worldwide. "They know all about it. They love me too cause im [sic] a funny guy."
The ability for troops with extremist ideologies to serve openly in the military ranks is under renewed scrutiny after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol that left five dead, including a federal police officer. Several veterans, reservists and a National Guard member have been charged for their alleged roles in the mob, and federal prosecutors say some of those people have ties to anti-government groups such as the Oath Keepers.
A 59-page Pentagon report that was submitted to members of Congress in October and obtained by Military.com this week shows the reach some white supremacist groups have in the military ranks. While the number of overall cases is low, the report states that the combination of extremist affiliations and military experience is a national security concern "because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events."
Roll Call first detailed the report's findings Tuesday, saying that the Defense Department is under threat from domestic extremists.
Of particular concern, the report adds, are groups that advocate white supremacy or nationalistic ideologies and want to recruit military personnel or infiltrate the ranks themselves "for the purpose of acquiring combat and tactical experience."
"Military members are highly prized by these groups as they bring legitimacy to their causes and enhance their ability to carry out attacks," the report states.
The military has struggled to assess the scope of the problem of white supremacy in the ranks. Experts testifying before Congress last year noted that the Defense Department had no reliable data on the number of service members or prospective recruits being separated or barred from enlisting over their extremist views.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, later added language to the annual defense bill requiring the military to study how it screens for extremist views. Aguilar, who sits on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, told Military.com in an email Wednesday that the report "confirms that white supremacists are using our military not just for training, but to give validity to their causes and even recruit our service members into their organizations."
"We have to do more to stop these hateful extremists from infiltrating our armed services," he said.
Aguilar will introduce legislation this week that, if passed, would require the DoD to act on all seven recommendations in the report. That includes working with the FBI to analyze potential enlistees' tattoos, making security clearance questions more specific, and adding new tracking codes to military separation forms to note extremist ties.
"This legislation is about keeping our brave service members safe from violent extremists," Aguilar said. "I want to make sure the DoD's recommendations are codified so that we have a consistent standard to screen for white supremacists and other extremists no matter what the country's political climate looks like."
The report notes that the Defense Department had begun work to implement most of the seven recommendations, though officials did not immediately respond to questions about how much progress they have made. The recommendation about adding identifiers to discharge forms if troops are separated for reasons tied to domestic extremism is still under review, according to the report.
Another proposal included in the report that wasn't among the seven formal recommendations is the need to check social media accounts, which are "perhaps the 'loudest' indicator of white supremacy/white nationalism involvement."
Challenges remain when it comes to conducting the checks, though. Not only can extremists hide content behind strong privacy settings or anonymous posts, there are also concerns about personal privacy and civil liberties.
Anyone who's not affiliated with the Defense Department must consent to allowing the military to conduct what the report calls "publicly available electronic information collection." Searching all prospective enlistees' social media postings could also be a lot of work, the report notes.
"Human analysts cannot effectively and efficiently search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DoD background vetting," it states.
The Defense Department recruits about 400,000 applicants annually. About a quarter-million of them sign contracts to join the military.
Aguilar noted that tackling the screenings will require cooperation from other government agencies. There are commercial social media search and collection capabilities that might be available to the Defense Department, the report adds.
Russell's not the only service member to reference his extremist ties online, it notes.
A sailor used the Iron March website to try to recruit a dozen people to join the Atomwaffen Division. An Army specialist used the messenger platform Discord to share a recruitment poster for the supremacist group Identity Evropa. A Marine member of that same group also revealed his full name and service affiliation on Discord.
The Army specialist and Marine are no longer in uniform. It's unclear whether the sailor who tried to recruit people on Iron March is still serving.
The report also cites the case of Air Force Master Sgt. Cory Reeves, an alleged member of Identity Evropa who posted racist memes and spread far-right propaganda. Reeves was demoted to technical sergeant in 2019 and was initially allowed to remain in the service. The Air Force later announced it was taking steps to discharge him.
An Army Reserve physician, a lieutenant colonel, is also listed as being a member of the group, which later rebranded as American Identity Movement. It was not immediately clear whether the officer is still in the Reserve.
The report notes that other white supremacists in the military who didn't have ties to specific groups were planning violent actions. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson was sentenced in 2020 to 13 years in prison after prosecutors claimed he was plotting to kill members of the media and lawmakers.
And in May, three self-proclaimed members of the Boogaloo movement, which the report calls militia extremists, were arrested and charged after allegedly planning to incite violence during a Las Vegas Black Lives Matter protest. The three men, an Army reservist and two veterans, "were arrested while in possession of Molotov cocktails," the report adds.
Recruiters play a critical role in keeping extremists from joining the military and further training and coordination with other federal agencies to spot tattoos and other warnings are needed, the report says.
"Without it," it adds, "DoD risks enlisting personnel who are detrimental to the good order and discipline of the military and who, in more serious cases, may become insider threats who use their authorized access to DoD facilities to cause harm to the Unit, the Service, or the United States."
-- Gina Harkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.