Military grapples with white nationalists in ranks

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Amid concerns about white nationalists enlisting in the U.S. military to gain combat training, the Marines have discharged a reservist who was identified as belonging to a notorious hate group, Yahoo News has learned. Meanwhile, the Army National Guard took a different approach in dealing with an enlisted man who held, but has renounced, similar extremist views.

Last month, the Marines severed ties with reservist Lance Cpl. Logan Piercy, who was one of 11 active-duty service members alleged to have ties to Identity Evropa by HuffPost in April. Identity Evropa is classified as a white supremacist group by the Anti-Defamation League, listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and was a key organizer of the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally that resulted in the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Piercy was deeply involved with the hate group, participating in white nationalist events, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. He also posted photos of himself placing Identity Evropa flyers on college campuses and repeatedly used anti-Semitic language in conversations on Discord, a group chat app.

Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

“Lance Corporal Piercy was administratively separated from the Marine Corps at the end of May,” Maj. Roger Hollenbeck told Yahoo News via email Wednesday. “There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps. Our strength is derived from the individual excellence of every Marine regardless of background. Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values.”

The Minnesota National Guard came to a different decision in the case of another service member named in the same article. Pfc. Andrew Schmidt, 19, was recalled from basic training in April after the same HuffPost report identified him as having ties to Identity Evropa.

The Minnesota National Guard said this week that Schmidt “did not engage in prohibited activity during his period of service” and will be retained, in accordance with Pentagon policy. Schmidt’s involvement with the group was not as deep or as long-lasting as Piercy’s, and he has renounced their ideology.

“Private First Class Schmidt has received counseling and training on Army policies against involvement in extremist groups and the prohibition of extremist activities,” said Col. Joe Sharkey, director of communications for Minnesota National Guard, in a statement to Yahoo News. “Private First Class Schmidt has disavowed any continued association with any groups or participation in activities that discriminate, or condone discrimination based on Race, Religion, Sexuality or Gender. The Minnesota National Guard is confident Schmidt will uphold our core values in his service to our state and nation."

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017 (Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Schmidt told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he was “embarrassed and ashamed” of his ties to the group and no longer shared its ideology, and added that “those groups are really manipulative. They target young men and make them feel like they’re part of something.” Schmidt posted 30 messages over the course of 16 months in an Identity Evropa-linked chat room, some discussing his future plans in the military and others about traveling to a gathering of the group in Colorado and paying membership dues.

An Air Force spokesperson told Yahoo News that an investigation into a master sergeant with alleged ties to Identity Evropa was ongoing.

But concerns remain about extremist organizations using the U.S. military to train their members. Elizabeth Yates and Patrick James, researchers at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism program, told Yahoo News earlier this year that white supremacists are joining the military in order to receive combat training. A report in the Washington Post found that immigrants face more scrutiny than white supremacists when enlisting.

“Extremist organizations actively seek out active and veteran members of the military,” said James. “A lot of these groups really value the types of experience, tactical training, leadership ability that you get in the military, so often, now, these groups are actively encouraging people to go and join the military to get that experience and then bring those skills back to their extremist groups. That’s another thing we need to look out for in terms of these groups actively seeking those types of experience.”

“We have also seen from reporting and scholarship outside our database that in this recruiting, they’re also encouraging members if they do join to avoid signals that might tell a recruiter that they’re extremist,” said Yates, “saying, ‘Don’t get tattoos, grow your hair long.’ And we just don’t know to what extent that’s being implemented.”

The issue of white supremacists and extremists in the military was given prominence by the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson earlier this year. Hasson, who resided in Silver Spring, Md., was alleged by prosecutors to be plotting murder “on a scale rarely seen in this country,” inspired by far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Following Hasson’s arrest, four Democratic representatives sent a letter to the Department of Defense asking what processes were in place to screen for extremists in the military and expressed concern “that an individual that espouses these views could repeatedly serve in the military across multiple services.”

Hasson is currently awaiting trial on drug and weapons charges.

In a reply to the letter, Assistant Secretary of Defense James Stewart wrote that “Department policy provides that Service members ‘must not actively advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage or advocate illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin’ and must ‘reject active participation’ in such organizations.”

Rep. Anthony Brown. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., who signed the February letter, added an amendment to the latest National Defense Authorization Act to attempt to address the issue. The amendment would ensure that surveys of Department of Defense employees would include questions of whether or not the respondents have experienced or witnessed supremacist activity, extremist activity and/or racism. The amendment awaits passage by the full House and Senate.

A 2017 poll of service members from the Military Times found that a quarter of respondents — and 42 percent of minorities — said they had witnessed white nationalism in the ranks.

The Trump administration has been criticized for not acting to counter the rise of far-right extremism. Last November, former Homeland Security staffers stated that the White House was not doing enough to combat white supremacists at home, and that the administration had failed to renew millions in funding for anti-extremism groups, despite raising the overall Homeland Security budget.

Concerns about connections between the U.S. military and white nationalists are not new. In 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing (which was partially inspired by the far-right group National Alliance) and the racially motivated murder of a black couple by Army paratroopers, the Pentagon launched an investigation into extremists in the armed services. A 2009 study from the Department of Homeland Security warned that extremist groups were likely to target disgruntled veterans returning from deployment. “The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today,” the report said.

The report also found that Army veteran Joshua Beckett had trained members of Atomwaffen, a far-right group linked to at least five murders, in firearms and hand-to-hand combat. In the group’s chats, Beckett wrote that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and explained how his time in the service had influenced his views.

“The army itself woke me up to race and the war woke me up to the Jews,” wrote Beckett.

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