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A blast wall on a U.S. base in Taji, Iraq, shows one set of gang graffiti crossing out another set.
A blast wall on a U.S. base in Taji, Iraq, shows one set of gang graffiti crossing out another set. (Photo courtesy of Hunter Glass)

Affiliation with a gang doesn’t automatically keep a member or potential recruit out of the military, and it isn’t a crime under military law, according to Pentagon officials.

“Consistent with First Amendment values, mere affiliation with, or having a tattoo representative of, a street gang does not automatically prevent service in the armed forces,” David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in an Aug. 26 letter to the ABC News show “Primetime,” supplied by the military Thursday to Stars and Stripes.

“But it is considered in the context of the whole person. Of course, engagement in criminal activity, whether or not it is associated with a gang, directly compromises one’s eligibility to serve in the military,” Chu wrote.

The Pentagon mandates that “military personnel must reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes; attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion or national origin; advocate the use of force or violence; or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights,” Chu said, citing a Department of Defense directive.

There is no definition for “gang” in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But military prosecutors can charge servicemembers for crimes that might be linked to gang activity, such as assault or larceny, according to Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Snyder, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Europe.

Once a servicemember takes “active participation” — such as publicly rallying, fundraising, recruiting or training members — they are legally culpable.

Army regulation 190-45, revised in February 2006, defines a gang as: “A group of individuals whose acts of crime are committed against the public at large as well as other groups. A gang usually has in common one or more of the following traits: geographic area of residence; race or ethnic background. They usually have a defined hierarchy that controls the general activities of its members.”

The Army’s definition is similar to those used by big-city police. The Chicago Police Department, for example, defines a gang as “an organized group that participates in criminal, threatening or intimidating activity within a community. The anti-social group has three or more individuals, evolves from within the community and has a recognized leadership as well as a code of conduct. It is united during peaceful times as well as during times of conflict,” according to department spokesman Patrick Camden.

“It exhibits the following characteristics in varying degrees: specific names and recognizable colors, definable hierarchy, geographic territory, regular meeting pattern, code of conduct and organized criminal activity.”

Within the Navy there is “no specific prohibition, but all personnel who enlist have basic training which includes Navy core values and other programs … which emphasize the Navy’s zero-tolerance policy for organizations posing a threat to civil rights of others, or whose focus is supremacist, racist, extremist causes,” Snyder said.

There is no indication gangs are present and active on Navy bases in Europe, said Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent David Di Paola, assistant special agent in charge for general criminal investigations for NCIS European field office.

“I’m not saying that there aren’t any former or current members, I’m saying that maybe they are not active, or they are keeping a low profile,” Di Paola said.

“Our screening is a lot better than it has been in the past,” he added. “The type of sailor or Marine who comes overseas is a better quality sailor or Marine. … We’re keeping our eyes open. We’re sensitive to the possibility.”

The Air Force, meanwhile, recently addressed gang activity as part of an Oct. 11 memo on participation in unlawfully discriminatory organizations: “While participation in gang activity may be illegal or inappropriate for a variety of reasons, gangs, per se, do not automatically fall within the proscriptions of the Air Force Instruction. Many gangs do, however, engage in discrimination or act to deprive others of their civil rights.

“Again, the role of the judge advocate is to assist commanders in determining when gang membership falls within the proscription and when it may be necessary to rely on other measures to address gang activity.”


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