Charlottesville: Alt-Right and White Supremacists Recruiting U.S. Military Veterans and Service Members

As cities and citizens in both Virginia and Washington, D.C., prepare for the worst ahead of the one year anniversary of the violent "Unite the Right" protest, last year's rally revealed a cultural dilemma surrounding race and political polarization among a class of people that perhaps few Americans expected to see: U.S. military service members and veterans.

This weekend, both the Commonwealth of Virginia, who has already declared a state of emergency, and the Nation's capital, could see more carnage as opposite ends of the racial and political spectrum clash in anger-fueled protests.

Many of the same white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups present at last year's protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one dead and dozens injured, plan to march on Saturday and Sunday as they face off with anti-fascists—Antifa—and other counter protesters amid a heavy law enforcement presence and a watchful press.

Yet, separate from this weekend's protests, the last year has shown a steady stream of news headlines showing service members and military veterans actively involved in domestic extremist organizations.

In Charlottesville last year, Vanguard America , an alt-right, white supremacist group that grew to embrace neo-Nazi ideology, was led by former U.S. Marine recruiter, Staff Sgt. Dillon Irizarry (also known as Dillon Ulysses Hopper). Irizarry rotated out of the military in January 2017.

Vanguard America's uniform was on full display in every major American newspaper the night before the violence as white nationalist Richard Spencer and his supporters, dress in white polo shirts and khaki pants, carrying tiki torches and chanting "You will not replace us!" as they surrounded the statue of Robert E. Lee.

The neo-Nazi group ultimately rose to national prominence after Army recruit washout James Alex Fields Jr., allegedly rammed a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters killing Heather Heyer. Vanguard America later denied that Fields was a member of the group, despite video and photographs showing that he was marching with Vanguard members and held a shield displaying their logo.

In May, a joint investigation by ProPublica and Frontline found that U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Vasillios Pistolis, who was assigned to 2nd Marine Logistics Group at Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, was at the Charlottesville protests and was a member of Traditionalist Worker Party and the Atomwaffen Division .

Pistolis can be seen beating a counter protester with a flag during the protests, who was later court-martialed and kicked out of the Marines. Nathan Damigo, a Marine Iraq War veteran and convicted felon was arrested in Charlottesville on a misdemeanor charge, said The Modesto Bee .

Damigo is the founder of Identity Evropa, white supremacist group focused on preserving "white American culture" and "promoting white European identity," according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Separate from the Charlottesville protest last year, U.S. Marine Sergeant Michael Chesny, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, and U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Joseph Manning were arrested in North Carolina at a "Confederate Memorial Day" rally. The Marines drove two hours from Eastern North Carolina to a the pro- Confederate demonstration in Alamance County, where they hung a white-nationalist symbol and slogans from the rooftop of a downtown building, said the Times-News. The two Marines were drummed out of the Corps.

The U.S. government has historically been concerned about right-wing extremist groups, dating back to the time of Timothy McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier and Bronze Star recipient, who would later detonate a 7,000-pound improvised explosive device outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

T.J. Leyden, a racist skinhead and former U.S. Marine, who later renounced the neo-Nazi movement, told the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2006 that, "Hate groups send their guys into the U.S. military because the U.S. military has the best weapons and training."

"Right now, any white supremacist in Iraq is getting live fire, guerilla warfare experience," Leyden said. "But any white supremacist in Iraq who's a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL or Marine Recon, he's doing covert stuff that's far above and beyond convoy protection and roadblocks. And if he comes back and decides at some point down the road that it's race war time, all that training and combat experience he's received could easily turn around and bite this country in the ass."

In July, a Newsweek reporter, who had previous reported on a member of Patriot Front, a Texas-based, white supremacist offshoot of Vanguard America, was sent a threatening message through the mail, indicating that the group knew where the reporter's family lived.

The reporter, writing for The Daily Beast at the time, had written about a U.S. Marine Erik Sailors, who was using his military experience to train other Patriot Front members mixed martial arts and hand-to-hand combat techniques.

A 2008 FBI intelligence assessment found that military experience in white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations ranged from "failure at basic training to success in special operations forces," and that, "FBI reporting indicates extremist leaders have historically favored recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence in preparation for an anticipated war against the federal government, Jews, and people of color."

The report was able to identify 203 service members with "confirmed or claimed military service" that were active in the extremist movement between October 2001 and May 2008. A Military Times poll taken last year, surveying 1,131 active-duty troops found that one in four troops say they have seen examples of white nationalism among their fellow service members.

Carla Hill, a senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League told Newsweek that its difficult to accurately measure what portion of the active duty and veteran community is involved in extremist groups.

"It's troublesome, that service members, either current or former, are involved at all, but at present, I can't make a valid argument that extremism is growing among that population," Hill said. "It's difficult to measure because of the multitude of people within the categories."

Hill did say that the Pentagon does work swiftly to remove these individuals from their ranks once identified and that the Anti-Defamation League works with military recruiters to help identify tattoos that may be associated with extremist organizations.

"I believe the problem right now among the military population is anecdotal and not systemic; however, the revelations we have seen lately are concerning. I just wish I had more definitive answers and data, because it's something we would definitely work towards correcting, but like I said it's difficult issue to measure," Hill told Newsweek .