Extremism In The Ranks

THE ARMY KNEW IT WAS IN TROUBLE even before Sam Donaldson arrived. Last December three enlisted men in the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., drove to nearby Fayetteville looking, one later told police, to rough up black people. When an African-American couple had the bad luck to walk by, two of the men--James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright, both white--allegedly shot the victims' heads off. That wasn't all. In the men's closets, police found Doc Martens with white laces, red suspenders, leather jackets with Nazi patches-- skinhead uniforms. Burmeister's bedroom sported Nazi flags and swastikas. Esquire magazine later published photos of soldiers covered by neo-Nazi tattoos. Donaldson jetted in to debrief skinheads and grill the brass. Overwhelmed, the military trotted out a study produced three weeks after the killings that found only 22 skinheads in the 14,736-member 82d Airborne. "We've identified the problem, and we're taking corrective action," Lt. Col. Robert McFetridge told "Prime Time Live." "We think the numbers are small."

The real problem isn't the exact number of skinheads in uniform. It's the largely white warrior culture that thrives around elite bases. The army remains one of the country's most integrated institutions. But some recruits in topflight units, often enlisted men, are increasingly prone to the raw attractions of the far right: guns and ideological certitude. And NEWSWEEK has learned that an extensive Pentagon task-force study of the phenomenon, due this month, is the subject of considerable internal debate. Though it is very difficult to put a number on the problem--most white-supremacist activity is hard to track--a get-tough faction says the army should frankly say there is trouble in the ranks. The other side, led by the brass, argues that because the task force has been unable to find a significant white-supremacist population, it ought to downplay the entire issue.

If you look in the right places, you'll find a few Tim McVeigh types. Often, after relatively short stints--but thorough weapons training--they'll leave the service. While in uniform, they tend to sign up for combat arms, the troops trained for the front lines. Soldiers like those at Fort Bragg, home to paratroopers and special forces, are decidedly more homogeneous--72 percent of the enlisted men in combat arms are white, 16 percent black--than the army as a whole. As Paul Caldwell, a former special-forces officer, points out, the hot outfits tend to be geographically surrounded by hate groups. According to a private army report obtained by NEWSWEEK, Crazy White Boys, SS American Skins, Mobbing for Kicks and more than 70 other groups have pitched their tents near places like Fort Lewis in Washington and Fort Carson in Colorado. "It is a concern to me," Secretary of the Army Togo West Jr. told NEWSWEEK. At Fort Bragg -- where the neo-Nazi National Alliance advertised on a bulletin board near the base--extremists tried to recruit at least one soldier after last year's murders.

To its credit, the army has worked hard to root out racism and attract a multiethnic force. It wasn't always this way. Wes McBride, a former marine, remembers a group of white soldiers burning a cross at a military facility in Kadena, Japan, in the '60s. And in the '70s race riots broke out on several U.S. bases. To make peace, the army started calling itself "all green," shrewdly emphasizing the color of soldiers' uniforms, not their skin. Currently, 61 percent of all army soldiers are white, 27 percent black--considerably more integrated than the country is generally.

But the push for racial harmony has produced a perverse effect: extremists still join up, only they usually keep their heads down. After the Fort Bragg murders the Pentagon ordered eight hours of racial "sensitivity training" at every U.S. base and told unit leaders to crack down on anything suspicious. In response, skinheads let their hair grow and stopped wearing neo-Nazi clothes. Army investigators -- who must rely largely on word of mouth--call these normal-looking extremists the "legals." "There is no way to spot them unless they do something stupid," one officer says.

DESPITE ITS DISCLAIMERS, THE army has been aware of its small but troubling white-supremacist cell for some time. A former army investigator told NEWSWEEK that the army trailed known skinheads at Fort Lewis beginning in the late '80s. One probe unearthed a pamphlet advising skinheads on how to go undetected on base. "It said, "When you get up to six people, split into two groups.' Hell, that's insurgency training," the officer recalls. The FBI also sends the army monthly or even weekly reports about skinheads or militia members in uniform. Some army extremists are racists, others just randomly malicious. In 1992 police stopped a car with two soldiers from Georgia's Fort Stewart after the men, members of the neo-Nazi Florida Corps Skins, shot a female tourist with a six-inch steel dart from a blowgun.

Inside the Strack Lounge near Fort Bragg, the skinheads seem less dangerous, though they're easy to spot. Three pool tables straddle the large, smoky room. Two soldiers--short, well built and wearing tank tops--play eight ball. They're almost all-American types, until you see their tattoo-encrusted arms and backs. None wants to talk to a reporter; the military is watching more closely now. But what could the army do? The First Amendment protects their right to belong to any group, as long as they don't break the law. So they just drink beer and listen to heavy metal on the jukebox. One of the female bartenders tosses back her head and laughs. "There's our army soldiers right there," she says. The skinheads haven't taken over the army, but a few still lurk in the shadows.