These are the faces of extremism in the military [Updated]
It only takes one to wreak havoc in the ranks.
No one knows exactly how many extremists are in the U.S. military, but it takes only one to wreak havoc within the ranks.
Ethan Melzer is a prime example, according to prosecutors. Last year, the 22-year-old Army private allegedly plotted with a Satanic neo-Nazi group to carry out a “mass casualty” attack on soldiers of his airborne unit during a deployment to Turkey, according to the Justice Department.
Brandon Russell is another. Seventeen months after joining the Florida Army National Guard in January 2016, the Timothy McVeigh acolyte was exposed as a founding member of a neo-Nazi group following his arrest for possession of explosive material. He’ll be released from prison in January 2023.
Although the vast majority of military members serve honorably, extremists have long viewed the armed services as a fertile recruiting ground. An FBI assessment distributed to law enforcement agencies in February concluded that white supremacists would “very likely seek affiliation with military and law enforcement entities in furtherance” of their ideologies, as ABC News reported. But the warning signs go back more than a decade: a 2009 Homeland Security report warned that military veterans possess combat skills and experiences that are attractive to right-wing extremists in particular.
In recent years, experts have sounded alarm bells over the rise of extremism within the ranks. For many, that issue was brought to the fore in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. This was in part due to revelations that more than 50 of those charged after the riot had a military or law enforcement history — raising fears that anti-government and other extremist sentiments had taken root within the military and veterans community.
“If you disagree with the U.S. Constitution and you disagree with the laws of this country so strongly that you think our government is no longer legitimate, then you have no business serving in the U.S. military and you should get out now,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on military extremism in March.
In order to gauge the scope of the problem in the military for service members, veterans, lawmakers, and researchers alike, Task & Purpose compiled this list of dozens of current and former service members sentenced for, discharged over, or identified in news reports as having ties to extremist activity in the past five years. Many have been removed from military service as a direct result of their alleged ties and actions. Some have not.
The Pentagon didn’t answer questions from Task & Purpose on whether any of the military members below were still serving. But officials publicly admit the Department of Defense doesn’t collect data on extremists. Nor do the military service branches, which typically kick out service members found to be promoting racist, sexist, or other bigoted views through an administrative procedure that is less severe than court-martial.
Why is that an issue? History shows what happens when the problem is ignored: During the late 1960s, the Pentagon noticed an uptick in violent incidents at military bases spurred by “perceived patterns of racial discrimination” in the military and surrounding communities, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The Department of Defense was “ultimately compelled to act” and instituted numerous reforms after a barracks altercation between a Black airman and a White airman at Travis Air Force Base in 1971 escalated into riots that left a civilian firefighter dead, 10 people injured, and hundreds in police custody. Even so, the Pentagon didn’t order service members to reject supremacist organizations until 1986, nearly a decade after more than a dozen Marines belonging to the Ku Klux Klan had freely handed out leaflets on base for a white supremacist group with a long, violent history of terrorizing minorities.
While our list is almost certainly incomplete, it’s important to remember that the names on it represent barely a fraction of the more than 2 million service members currently on active duty and in the reserves. It may seem strange, then, that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin prioritized combating extremism in the military shortly after President Joe Biden took office. Austin announced a 60-day “extremism stand down” in February, which critics believe is part of an effort to “purge” conservatives from the ranks.
“I want to root out of the military those who actively participate in vile and violent hate groups,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in March. “But it’s important to remember that extremist behavior is already prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and by each service’s own regulations … This is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services.”
But as the cases of Melzer and Russell show, there can be “serious negative consequences” for the military when extremists make it into the ranks, according to a 2020 report from the Anti-Defamation League, including physical harm to fellow service members, theft of military equipment, security breaches, and harm to morale and unit cohesion — the latter critical to mission success and group survival in combat.
“This is behavior that can really tear at the fabric of our institution,” Austin said in March. “And so we want to make sure that our troops are reminded of what our values are, reminded of the oath that we took coming in.”
The rules on what to do with a Marine found posting racist memes to Facebook or a Coast Guard officer amassing weapons for a potential race war can be found in a Defense Department instruction that was last updated in 2012. A key part of the regulation states that troops should not promote supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, including ideology or causes “that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.”
Yet despite these guidelines, joining extremist groups is allowed as long as a service member isn’t an “active participant.” It’s a loophole the Pentagon says it’s working to close, though it’s unclear when that might happen. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said earlier this month it’s “not something” that is in “the immediate actions.”
“It’s not just about group membership,” Kirby said. “It’s about the ideology and the conduct that the ideology inspires … Some of this radicalization occurs on an individual level, and some of it happens based on interaction and social media circles, and some of it happens with interaction with peers and colleagues – and not all those peers and colleagues are in the ranks.”
These are the ones we know about who made it into the ranks (last updated on April 23, 2021):
- Alex Zwiefelhofer: Zwiefelhofer is one of two U.S. Army veterans who met while fighting for a far-right paramilitary group in Ukraine who have been accused of murdering a Florida couple in 2018. Zwiefelhofer and his accomplice, Craig Lang, another former soldier, are still awaiting trial for allegedly robbing and killing the couple so they could finance a trip to Venezuela and kill “communists,” Zwielhofer told law enforcement officials. The 23-year-old Wisconsin native was discharged from the Army in 2018 after going absent without leave in 2016.
- Andrew Schmidt: The independent media collective Unicorn Riot obtained and published leaked chats from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, including messages of support from Pvt. Andrew Schmidt of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Additionally, Schmidt made his Steam profile photo that of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi who played a key role in the Holocaust. The Guard investigated in 2019 and said it would not expel Schmidt, who told a reporter he was “embarrassed and ashamed” of the group and disavowed any further association.
- Anthony Schroader: A Marine Corps reservist, Schroader came under investigation in April 2019 after he messaged the creator of the Terminal Lance webcomic, who is Jewish, a photo showing Marines positioning their boots in the form of a swastika. The private first class was reduced in rank to private and then administratively separated from the Corps in October 2019.
- Brandon Russell: A soldier in the Florida Army National Guard and a founding member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, Russell was arrested in June 2017 after law enforcement officers found components of a “crude pipe bomb as well as radioactive materials” in his garage, according to ProPublica. Russell pleaded guilty to explosives-related charges and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
- Christopher Cummins: A physician and lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, Cummins’ email address and biographical details were found by HuffPo to match with a user on the Identity Evropa chats who at one point was “celebrating Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday” and hanging posters for the white nationalist group in public.
- Christopher Hodgman: After flyers and stickers for the white nationalist group Identity Evropa were posted around Brighton, New York in the fall of 2019, police investigated and matched fingerprints from the flyers to Hodgman, an ROTC cadet and member of the Army Reserve.
- Christopher Paul Hasson: A self-described white nationalist, Hasson was sentenced to more than 13 years in federal prison on weapons and drug-related charges in January 2020. According to prosecutors, Hasson — a Coast Guard lieutenant who worked at the service’s headquarters in Washington — advocated that “focused violence” could help establish a white homeland and had allegedly created a hit list of Democratic politicians, activists, and media personalities while amassing firearms, silencers, ammunition, and tactical gear.
- Cole James Bridges: An Army cavalry scout, Pfc. Bridges was arrested in January 2021 and charged with allegedly plotting with Islamic State militants to conduct attacks on his fellow soldiers. Bridges “attempted to provide military tactical training and advice to ISIS to facilitate the efforts of ISIS fighters to repel U.S. Special Forces and kill American soldiers” in Syria, according to a federal investigation, during which time he revealed the plot to undercover law enforcement personnel.
- Corwyn Storm Carver: A private first class at Fort Bliss, Texas, Carver was investigated by the Army in 2019 over suspected ties to a neo-Nazi group named the Atomwaffen Division. He allegedly posted photos of himself online wearing a Charles Manson shirt and giving a Nazi salute and wrote to fellow group members that “first sergeants are officially all homosexual Jews who will die during the revolution,” according to HuffPo.
- Cory Reeves: A master sergeant at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, Reeves was accused of being a member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa in April 2019. After an Air Force investigation, he was demoted and later discharged in August 2020.
- Craig Lang: Lang is one of two U.S. Army veterans who met while fighting for a far-right paramilitary group in Ukraine who have been accused of murdering a Florida couple in 2018. The pair of former soldiers, who are still awaiting trial, allegedly robbed and killed the couple so they could finance a trip to Venezuela and kill “communists,” his accomplice, Alex Zwiefelhofer, told law enforcement officials. Lang will soon be extradited to the United States from Ukraine, where he’s become a cause célèbre for his taking part in the battle against Russian-backed separatists.
- Dalton Woodward: Woodward was kicked out of the Georgia Army National Guard in 2019 after being investigated for ties to a controversial neo-pagan sect called the Asatru Folk Assembly, a supposed whites-only church.
- Daniel Baker: A former soldier who was kicked out of the Army after going AWOL, Baker later traveled to Syria to fight against Islamic State militants alongside Kurdish militia. He was arrested on Jan. 15, 2021 after allegedly inciting violence against supporters of then-President Donald Trump in Tallahassee, Florida. Baker took to social media to issue a “call to arms for like-minded individuals” to rally at the State Capitol to “violently confront protesters,” and called for veterans to “join him in encircling any protestors and confining them at the Capitol complex using firearms.”
- Daniel Harris: Harris is one of 13 men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. A former Marine infantryman, Harris left the service as a corporal in June 2019. Several members of the group, including Harris, were regular attendees of anti-lockdown protests and displayed patches and clothing identified with the anti-government “boogaloo movement.”
- Dannion Phillips: The name of Phillips, an airman first class in the Air Force, appeared in leaked chat logs from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, according to HuffPo, where he supposedly wrote under his real name and boasted of putting up flyers for the group in Oklahoma City.
- Dillon Hopper: A Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hopper is the leader of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America whose members marched in the violent “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Hopper became a white nationalist in 2012, according to Splinter, yet served in the Corps until January 2017 as a staff sergeant and Marine recruiter.
- Erik Sailors: Sailors served in the Marine Corps until 2016. After being named in a police report in 2018 for distributing flyers for the white supremacist group Patriot Front, Sailors was named as the head of the group’s Texas chapter in a Daily Beast report. He regularly posted racist and anti-Semitic messages in leaked chat logs.
- Ethan Melzer: A private in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, Melzer allegedly planned to carry out a “mass casualty” attack on soldiers of his own unit in 2020 and disclosed sensitive information to a neo-Nazi group named Order of the Nine Angles. He is currently awaiting trial.
- Felippe Maher: The Marine Corps opened an investigation in 2019 after a person at Penn State University tweeted bigoted images taken from Maher’s Snapchat account, in which the second lieutenant attended a party to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day by eating fried chicken and watermelon. Photo captions included mention of “My n—a Obama” and “I’m king n—a” over video of Maher donning a watermelon crown. His court-martial has been delayed.
- Jarret William Smith: An infantry soldier stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, Smith was charged in September 2019 with sending bomb-making instructions to an undercover investigator. The private first class discussed “killing members of Antifa” and destroying cell towers or a local news station, according to prosecutors. He was sentenced in 2020 to over two years in federal prison.
- Jarrett Morford: Citing President Donald Trump, Pfc. Jarrett Morford blamed China for the pandemic and threatened to kill any Chinese people he encountered once he got to his unit after initial training: “If any ch–nk-headed motherf—-r comes up to me when I’m in the fleet, say five five six b–ch. That’s all I gotta say. Say five five f–king six,” Morford said in a video posted online in October 2020. A Marine official said the Corps would take “appropriate action.”
- Jason Laguardia: A Marine reservist in Connecticut, Lance Cpl. Laguardia attended a gathering for the white nationalist group Identity Evropa in 2019, according to HuffPo, and regularly boasted about posting stickers and flyers for the group throughout Connecticut and New York City.
- Jay C. Harrison: Harrison quit the ROTC program at Montana State University in 2019 amid a military investigation into his ties to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. According to HuffPo, Harrison, a member of the Army National Guard, put up stickers for the organization around campus and wrote racist and anti-Semitic posts in the group’s online chat. “I wish the holocaust had been real,” he allegedly wrote in one leaked chat message. “Not one kike was ever gassed.”
- Joe Mercurio: A deployed infantry machine-gunner, Lance Cpl. Mercurio came under investigation by the Marine Corps in October 2020 after he told a Jewish journalist that her religion is “that of satan.” Mercurio’s Instagram handle used “88,” which neo-Nazis often use as shorthand for “HH,” or “Heil Hitler, and he included two quotes in his bio, including one from white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, and another a lyric from Skrewdriver, a neo-Nazi punk rock band. He faced unspecified “punitive actions” after the investigation but remains assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, a Marine official said.
- Jonathan Gould: After being outed as an alleged member of white nationalist group Identity Evropa by activists in March 2019, an Army spokesperson said that Gould, a soldier stationed in the Pacific Northwest, left the military the following month but would not elaborate on the circumstances of his departure.
- Joseph Kane: A soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, Kane liked a Facebook post by a known member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and has shared the “It’s okay to be white” meme popular among white supremacists. “I am absolutely tired of GOP indifference to the anti-White agenda,” Kane wrote on Facebook, according to HuffPo, which reported in March 2019 that the biographical information of a user named ‘Kane’ found in leaked Identity Evropa chat logs was a match to the soldier.
- Joseph Manning: An active-duty Marine staff sergeant, Manning was one of two Marines arrested in May 2017 after hanging a white nationalist banner from a building during a rally to celebrate Confederate history in North Carolina. He was separated from the Marine Corps in April 2018 for ties to white supremacist groups.
- Joseph Morrison: Morrison is one of 13 men accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020. A former Marine lance corporal, Morrison was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve days before the allegations surfaced. Several members of the group, including Morrison, were regular attendees of anti-lockdown protests and displayed patches and clothing identified with the anti-government “boogaloo movement.”
- Liam J. Collins: After Vice News reported that at least three members of the military were users on a neo-Nazi forum called Iron March, Newsweek identified one poster of “anti-Semitic and racist remarks directed at multiple ethnic groups” as Marine Lance Cpl. Liam Collins, a 20-year-old rifleman at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
- Logan Piercy: A Marine lance corporal, Piercy was administratively separated from the military in May 2019 after making “deeply racist and anti-Semitic posts” on white nationalist forums and being identified by HuffPo as a member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.
- Mason Mead: A Marine lance corporal, Mead was revealed in February 2019 to have posted a picture of himself in black face and written on his Twitter account in praise of Nazis. The infantry assault Marine admitted to “advocating supremacist ideology” in May 2019 and received an other than honorable discharge.
- Michael Chesny: An active-duty Marine sergeant, Michael Chesny was one of two Marines arrested after hanging a white nationalist flag from a building during a rally celebrating Confederate history in Graham, North Carolina. Chesney wrote extensively on the chat app Discord, where he appeared to be involved in organizing “Unite the Right,” the violent Aug. 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and joked about running over protesters with vehicles (Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old protester, was killed during the rally when a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr. rammed into a crowd of protesters). Chesney was kicked out of the Corps in April 2018.
- Russell Langford: An Army Reserve major, Langford was arrested and charged in June 2016 with allegedly making death threats against a mosque in North Carolina. Langford admitted to threatening to kill and bury members of the mosque while brandishing a firearm. He was sentenced to 8 months of home confinement in November 2016.
- Shawn Michael McCaffrey: An airman first class in the Air Force, McCaffrey was able to join the service in January 2021 despite his long history of posting extremist views being a Google search away. Officials said in April they were “looking into it” after a HuffPo report revealed McCaffrey was a member of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa and espoused anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic beliefs.
- Spenser Rapone: An enlisted Army Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, Rapone later graduated from West Point and commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 2016, where he took photos of himself in uniform endorsing communism. One photo showed the self-proclaimed “revolutionary socialist” in cadet uniform with “Communism Will Win” inside his cap. The so-called “Commie Cadet” was kicked out of the Army in June 2018 with an other than honorable discharge.
- Stephen Farrea: A corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve, Ferrara made racist comments in chat logs leaked from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and attended at least one gathering, according to HuffPo.
- Timothy Hale-Cusanelli: An Army reservist, Hale-Cusanelli has been charged with taking part in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Prosecutors say the 30-year-old employed as a security contractor at a Navy base once told a coworker he “would kill all the Jews and eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” and took photos of himself wearing a Hitler mustache.
- Thomas Cade Martin: A Marine lance corporal, Cade Martin was busted down to private first class and kicked out of the Marine Corps in September 2020 for allegedly sharing white supremacist material.
- Trent East: East was kicked out of the Alabama Army National Guard in 2019 after being investigated for ties to a controversial neo-pagan sect called the Asatru Folk Assembly, a supposed whites-only church.
- Vasillios Pistolis: A Marine lance corporal, Pistolis was exposed as a member of a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division in May 2018. Pistolis, who was stationed in North Carolina, was photographed beating a protester with a wooden flagpole at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. He was later found guilty at court-martial and booted from the Marine Corps in July 2018.
James Clark and Jeff Schogol contributed reporting.