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TACOMA, Wash. — Community activists and crime investigators know soldiers at Fort Lewis have been involved in gangs.

Post officials know that, too. What they don’t agree on is whether those troops are still gangbanging.

Col. Katherine Miller, provost marshal for the base, said commanders have seen a few instances of minor gang activities over the years, but they have not had any major incidents on or off base.

Dennis Turner, a former gangster who counsels Seattle-area youth, said those investigators aren’t looking hard enough.

“I was just on base talking to a family whose kid is in a gang,” he said. “I know a guy who just got out who’s a full Gangster Disciple. Of course they don’t see it on base. These guys take it out on the streets. Is it fair for [Fort Lewis] to let it out into the community?”

Gangs in the ranks

Fort Lewis officials said they look into every gang lead. But under Army standards, gang paraphernalia, tattoos and even affiliation with gang members doesn’t prompt any direct action.

“Any gang activity is a problem,” said spokesman Lt. Col. Dan Williams. “But should we deny these soldiers an opportunity to clean up their life? For some of these guys the Army is a good, clean break.”

Community activists disagree that many are making that break. Scott Barfield, a former gang investigator at Fort Lewis, said he followed numerous cases of soldiers who have lived a dual life.

“Look good, be respectful and get a high PT score — that’s it,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. You can bang all day, every day. You can find a gangbanger in every set of barracks.”

Barfield said that in the past four years, he has identified more than 300 soldiers and dependents on base as active gang members. Miller calls that an exaggeration, saying that slightly more than 200 people on post have had some gang contact — anything from talking with a known gangster to being involved in a gang-related crime — over that period.

Barfield said Fort Lewis officials knew of gang problems with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment before that unit moved to Germany early last year, but provided little information to Army officials in Europe before the transfer. Since then, members of the unit have been involved in several gang incidents overseas.

Fort Lewis officials said they saw no evidence of serious gang problems in that unit.

Both sides agree that that there aren’t gang incidents on Fort Lewis itself, but disagree why. Military leaders say it’s because they closely monitor and reform suspected gangsters. Turner said it’s because gang troops are smart enough to take illegal business away from their commanders’ sight.

Rico Leflie, a former gangster who works with Turner, said the gang members he talks with locally know about people and problems on post that the military has ignored.

“It’s a hush-hush thing,” he said. “The community wants to know how much is going on there, but everyone seems scared to speak about the problem. We used to have some contacts on base who would talk to us, but we don’t anymore. The Army doesn’t want them to do that.”

Tacoma’s problems

Gang violence in the Tacoma area is a growing problem. The region was notorious for gangs and drug crimes in the late 1980s, but curbed those crimes by the late 1990s. Now, they are increasing again.

But that hasn’t lead to a corresponding rise in gang members on post, according to the local police.

In September, Julius Williams, a Fort Lewis soldier who had been AWOL for several weeks, was shot and killed in a gang area of Tacoma after a dispute over a handgun he borrowed from a known criminal.

Barfield said his contacts confirmed it was a gang killing, but local police said they lacked the evidence to prove that.

Fort Lewis officials said that it did not fit the military definition for gang-related crimes involving troops.

Serving in two armies

Miller, the provost marshal, said just being a member of a gang can tear down some of the bonds in a unit, even without criminal activity.

“It’s intuitive to most of us that the values of Army — loyalty, duty, all of those things — don’t line up with the lifestyle of a gangster,” she said.

But she notes that Army regulations do not specifically prohibit gang members from serving.

“If you told me you were a member of a gang, my concern is how would your behavior manifest itself to pose a threat to this community,” Miller said. “If you’re posing no threat to the community, if you’re posing no threat to the unit or to its good order and discipline, there is nothing wrong with you being a gang member under law.”

It’s that very loophole that gangsters in the military deftly exploit, and it’s how they stay under the radar of Army leaders, Barfield said.

“They’re smarter,” he said. “They know what to do. They know what game to play. Gangbanging’s their job. It’s their career.

“You ask a gang member who he is, and he’ll say he’s a Crip or a Sureño. Then, he’ll tell you he’s a soldier.”

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