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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — They’ve heard occasional rumors, seen graffiti or read a story about someone getting beat up or worse.

But firsthand knowledge of real gang activity in the military is sparse in the Pacific, according to a Stars and Stripes survey.

More than 60 servicemembers in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea were interviewed on the topic.

Some said they heard gossip about gangs, including on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka Naval Base. Others say they knew former gang members who joined up to get away the from gang lifestyle.

When asked whether gangs affected their military lives, most said they didn’t. Gangs here, many said, are more like attitudinal or fraternal peer groups than anything else.

Hanging together

“No gangs” signs are posted outside Geodana Club, an urban hangout in Yokosuka’s Honch. It’s just a precaution — not due to actual gang activity, said club owner Walter Joe Nnanna. He used to see more obvious gang signs when the USS Independence was in Yokosuka in the 1990s, he said. These days, he said he doesn’t even want customers acting ganglike.

His customers do run in packs and look out for each other, but that’s to be expected abroad, he said. “This is the only family they have here. It’s not gangs, it’s more like a friendship association. It’s standing up for your homeboy.”

Mike Michell, acting supervisory special agent for criminal investigations with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in Yokosuka, said that the agency investigates gangs, but he could not give a definite yes or no as to whether factions of criminal gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and MS-13 exist in Yokosuka. Statistically, the larger the command, the larger the chance an organized group is operating as such, he said.

“I expect in some form strong peer associations certainly exist here and across the military,” Michell said. “I don’t expect the gangs many of us think of in the U.S. exist in the same size, form or manner on the carrier or on any other afloat unit or shore command.”

Several sailors said they heard of gangs on the Kitty Hawk, but added that sailors are often divided by rates more than along known gang lines.

“There are rivalries between rates and some talking trash,” said Kitty Hawk Seaman Recruit Joe Turner.

One former Kitty Hawk master-at-arms said that gangs exist but they mostly serve to protect their berthing territory, illegal craps games and each other.

Yokosuka sailors also are trained to recognize illegal gang signs and tattoos and to look out for neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, according to a USS Kitty Hawk training presentation sent to Stars and Stripes.

In nearby Fussa City, the home of Yokota Air Base, no one asked by Stripes had ever heard of any American gangs in the area.

Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, report the same.

“I haven’t seen anything at all I could link to gangs,” Pfc. Emanuel Salazar said.

So why not?

Pacific overseas military structure makes it hard to hide gang affiliations, said Michell, the NCIS agent.

“Back in the States, when a sailor or servicemember gets off work and goes off base … they are in the diverse American culture and can more easily assimilate into most any group, gang or otherwise,” Michell said. “It doesn’t work the same way when you are stationed overseas.”

Servicemembers stand out when they leave the gate, he said, and are easily identifiable as military members.

“Over here in Korea, I don’t think it would work,” said Pfc. Michael Warns of the 61st Maintenance Company at Camp Stanley. “There are too many people watching you all the time.”

Marines in Camp Foster in Okinawa echoed the sentiment.

“I’d have a hard time believing someone could pull it off in the Marines,” said Pfc. Jonathan Geler. “We have a pretty strict code of conduct, especially in how we dress and conduct ourselves in public.”

Off-base business owners also cite the yakuza, which traditionally handles Japan’s underworld activities, as a deterring factor.

Gang potential

But it would be relatively easy for a clever gang member to operate and recruit “young, impressionable soldiers,” some soldiers said.

“It would probably be fairly easy if you take a guy with no group to fit into with, and someone says, ‘Hey, why don’t you come on over here with us?’ ” said Sgt. 1st Class Don Riggins of the 1st Signal Brigade at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.

The Army provides people with leadership skills, organization and weapons training — traits valued by the more ambitious gangs, said Master Sgt. Katherine Pennebecker at Camp Casey.

“A couple of tours in Iraq would be all the experience they needed,” she said.

Pennebecker’s concern was whether recruiters struggling to meet wartime quotas would screen out gang members.

Redemption

But the military can also be a potentially life-changing experience for former gang members, said Sgt. Christopher Arce of the 2nd Infantry Divsion, Special Troops Battalion, headquarters company.

“If a former gang member is trying to better their life, that’s cool,” Arce said. “But if they’re here to make trouble, they need to get out of the U.S. Army.”

Allison Batdorff, Erik Slavin, Vince Little and David Allen contributed to this report.

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