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82nd Airborne responds to picture of man wearing its insignia at Charlottesville rally

By CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR. | The Washington Post | Published: August 16, 2017

One thing set the man with sandy blonde hair apart, and it wasn't the Ku Klux Klan gesture he was making with his left hand.

He was, after all, at a white supremacist rally Saturday. And he was flanked by several other men making the same salute: thumb tucked under four fingers, arm extended. Some wore bulletproof vests or clothing emblazoned with the Confederate flag. None were out of place at the rally.

But the blonde man was wearing a hat with the insignia of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division — and people who had served in the unit took notice. Lots of them.

The image was tweeted by a former Obama administration official Sunday. Then it was shared by soldiers who had served in the unit, who shared it with their buddies, Army officials say.

By Tuesday, the tweet had been shared more than 22,000 times and liked nearly 30,000 times.

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And the man in the hat — who hasn't been publicly identified — drew rebuke after rebuke from the official twitter handle of the unit's association.

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Army Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, the spokesman for the 82nd Airborne who penned the tweets, told The Washington Post that the unit has been inclusive since its inception. It was formed in 1917 with soldiers from all 48 states, and racially integrated since 1947, a year before other military units, he said.

"We know what our values are," Buccino said. "We know what our culture is. We have these great moments of real valor in Europe and helped save the world from tyranny."

At first, many thought the man in the 82nd Airborne hat was doing a Hitler salute; others pointed out that it was actually a KKK salute. The Post has been unable to reach the man in the photo.

There was skepticism about whether the man had actually served in the 82nd Airborne. Shirts and badges with the same insignia were for sale on the Internet, and easy to obtain for a unit with a century of history.

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Seventy years ago, members of the 82nd Airborne had fought against the Nazis. On a hot Saturday in 2017, someone wearing their hat was fraternizing with neo-Nazis.

The 82nd Airborne saw heavy fighting during World War II, according to the United States Holocaust Museum. Paratroopers advanced into Germany and liberated the Wöbbelin camp, a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. At its height, Neuengamme held 5,000 prisoners, many of whom were diseased and starving. The unit saw nearly 7,000 battle casualties, according to the museum.

On D-Day, the 82nd's paratroopers were part of the largest airborne assault in history.

In 1991, the U.S. Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recognized the division as a liberating unit.

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The man in the cap was one of hundreds of protesters who attended Saturday's Unite the Right rally, which descended into chaos that left three people dead and many more injured. One woman was killed when a driver plowed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

After the protest, people on social media have tried to learn, then publicize, the identities of the tiki-torch-carrying neo-Nazis and alt-right supporters who attended the rally - and to make them face the consequences of their decisions at home (although some have been erroneously identified).

A hot dog cook from Berkeley, California, lost his job when he was outed. Universities issued statements of condemnation after their students attended.

One man was even publicly disowned by his father.

"My son, Peter Tefft, is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer," Pearce Tefft wrote in a letter to the Forum, a Fargo, North Dakota, newspaper. "I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. Then and only then will I lay out the feast."

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