New recruits receive a Uniform Code of Military Justice brief at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 7, 2017.

New recruits receive a Uniform Code of Military Justice brief at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 7, 2017. (Angelica Annastas/U.S. Marine Corps)

New recruits receive a Uniform Code of Military Justice brief at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 7, 2017.

New recruits receive a Uniform Code of Military Justice brief at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 7, 2017. (Angelica Annastas/U.S. Marine Corps)

(Illustration by Bev Schilling/Stars and Stripes)

To avoid enlisting neo-Nazis, skinheads and other white supremacists, military recruiters are told to watch for tattoos showing barbed wire, hobnailed boots and hammers. Also to look for tattoos of lightning bolts, skulls and swastikas.

“There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said Tuesday.

Those comments, like those of the other service chiefs who denounced bigotry following the “Unite the Right” rally that brought white men bearing torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” to Charlottesville, Va., reaffirmed military policies forbidding extremist advocacy or participation.

“The Department of Defense’s strength comes from those that serve their nation every day honorably and with distinction,” Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick, a Pentagon spokesman, told Stars and Stripes. “Association or participation with hate or extremist groups of any kind violates the Department of Defense’s core values of duty, integrity, ethics, honor, courage and loyalty. We take any and all allegations of misconduct very seriously.”

Yet the leader of white supremacist group Vanguard America at the Aug. 11-12 Charlottesville rally was until earlier this year a Marine staff sergeant in good standing.

Dillon Ulysses Hopper was a Marine from 2006 through January, his service record states. He became the leader of Vanguard America last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremist groups. Hopper spent more than two years with the Marines as a recruiter.

Vanguard America is a white supremacist group that opposes multiculturalism and “believes that America is an exclusively white nation,” the Anti-Defamation League stated. “Using a right-wing nationalist slogan, Blood and Soil, VA romanticizes the notion that people with ‘white blood’ have a special bond with ‘American soil.’”

Meanwhile, an armed security detail composed of military veterans assisted the white nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville, according to “Vice News Tonight” reporter Elle Reeve. “They have a circle of mostly Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who now do security for Richard Spencer and other white nationalist groups,” Reeve told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Persistent infiltration efforts There have been longstanding concerns about right-wing extremists in the military, about such groups seeking to infiltrate the services to gain tactical knowledge and about troops’ radicalization after they’ve joined.

A 2008 FBI assessment titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11” found just over 200 identifiable neo-Nazis with military training.

Military experience “ranging from failure at basic training to success in special operations forces” was evident throughout the white supremacist movement, the report said.

“FBI reporting indicates extremist leaders have historically favored recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence in preparation for an anticipated war against the federal government, Jews, and people of color,” the report added.

In 2009, a security analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, Daryl Johnson, alerted local police departments to a rising risk of terrorist attacks by the extremist right. The department “is concerned that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities,” the report said.

Johnson’s report, issued just after the election of Barack Obama, set off a conservative media firestorm that claimed it disparaged troops and law-abiding conservatives. The report was pulled and Johnson’s office was shut down.

The same year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, another group that tracks extremist groups, compiled a list of 40 users of a white supremacist social networking website who identified themselves as active-duty military and asked Congressional committees to pressure the Pentagon to crack down.

“In the wake of several high-profile murders by extremists of the radical right, we urge your committees to investigate the threat posed by racial extremists who may be serving in the military to ensure that our armed forces are not inadvertently training future domestic terrorists,” group co-founder Morris Dees wrote to the legislators.

Haverstick said it’s important to remember that “the overwhelming majority of servicemembers are honorable, law-abiding, disciplined patriots who represent the very best of America’s population.”

No anti-extremist group has disputed that assertion. Still, military veterans have been conspicuous in some of the most horrific right-wing extremist attacks, from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people to the 2012 killings of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Johnson, now a security consultant, said that the number of military white supremacists is relatively small. But he said veterans comprise a significant part of the militia movement that sprung up after the Obama election.

Militia recruiting Militia membership for servicemembers is a grayer area than that of clearly known hate groups. In some cases military rules against espousing racialism can trump the constitutional right of assembly.

Haverstick declined to talk broadly about whether joining a militia would violate anti-extremism policy.

“There are a lot of organizations that use the word militia to define them, so I cannot speak to all of them,” he wrote in an email.

Heavily armed militias have engaged in standoffs with federal officials, turned up as self-appointed armed guards at military recruiting centers and patrolled the streets in Ferguson, Mo., and Charlottesville.

“They’re attracted to that movement and they fit into that movement,” Johnson said. “I’d say half to three-quarters of militia members have ties to the military. They’re also a counterintelligence threat, in my opinion.”

Some militias espouse white supremacist ideology or operate alongside such groups, while others avoid public racial stances. The largest militia group is Oath Keepers, formed in 2009 by a former paratrooper and Yale graduate, which openly recruits active-duty military and veterans, police and medics.

The group, which claims tens of thousands of members, is “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today,” stated the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has also detailed clashes with neo-Nazis who criticize Oath Keepers for lacking racism.

“While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”

Oath Keepers, which posts on its website a variety of military unit insignias and patches of members, did not respond to a request for comment.

Oath Keepers declare that they will not obey unconstitutional orders “such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as ‘enemy combatants’ in violation of their ancient right to jury trial.”

Right-wing extremist activity usually falls during Republican administrations, Johnson said.

“But in this administration, it isn’t the case. Ideas I saw on Stormfront and other white supremacist websites 10 or 15 years ago — building a wall, mass deportations, banning Muslims — that’s policy now,” he said. “I feel it’s emboldened these extremists.”

DOD forbids extremist group participation, tattoos, tweets

Servicemembers can be disciplined or discharged for actively advocating for or participating in “supremacist, extremist or criminal gang ideology or causes.”

Groups that advocate “illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity or national origin” are forbidden to military troops. So are groups that advocate “the use of force, violence or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”

Active participation includes fundraising, demonstrating, rallying, recruiting, training, organizing or leading members; distributing material, including posting online; and having tattoos associated with such gangs or organizations, according to Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick, a Defense Department spokesman.

Penalties are up to commanders and can include reprimand, loss of security clearance or discharge from the service. Servicemembers do not have the same free-speech rights as civilians do, military courts have ruled.

“(A) lower standard for dangerous speech unprotected by the First Amendment pertains in the military context,” the military’s highest court ruled in 2008, “where dangerous speech is that speech that interferes with or prevents the orderly accomplishment of the mission or presents a clear danger to loyalty, discipline, mission or morale of the troops.”

Navy Reserve intelligence officer Lt. j.g. John Michael Posobiec, who goes by “Jack,” recently had his security clearance suspended over such issues.

Posobiec promulgated debunked conspiracy theories on social media, including that Democrats ran a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor and that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered. In June, he posted video of himself rushing a stage presentation of “Julius Caesar” and shouting that theatergoers were “Nazis like Joseph Goebbels.”

He told NBC News that he wasn’t told why his clearance was suspended but suspects it was because he had become “more outspoken on Twitter.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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