With the Holocaust Museum shooting, the Army is eyeing recruits more closely for extremist and gang ties
Only a tiny minority are drawn to violent groups, but these economic and political times may raise the potential for such connections.
As the country faces a spate of violent extremist acts, some committed by former service members, the US military is taking steps to root out those who want to use the service's deadly training for nefarious purposes.
"This is on the conscience of the military," says Ray Kelley, legislative director for AMVETS, a veteran service organization in Washington. "There might be some people trying to slip in and they try to identify those people and keep them out, whether it's ... inner city gangs that would want to come for training or white supremacist or religious extremist groups that want people to be trained."
A much-criticized Department of Homeland Security report about right-wing extremism that was eventually retracted after its release in March cited a 2006 independent study stating that "large numbers" of white supremacists are "learning the art of warfare" in the US armed forces.
The new vigilance comes on the heels of growing concerns about the potential radicalization of a small segment of disaffected US combat veterans after they leave the service, all at a time of economic uncertainty and nationalist rumblings under the country's first black president, Barack Obama.
In the early days of the Iraq War, the Army resorted to using waivers for criminal convictions in order to find enough recruits to fill its ranks.
"Those waivers exacerbated a problem that might have already been there with people who join the service because they're attracted to violence – it got worse," says Lawrence Korb, a military and foreign policy analyst with the Center for American Progress in Washington and former assistant secretary of defense for manpower affairs in the Reagan administration.
The Army is now more carefully investigating and screening potential recruits, a process eased by a troubled economy that has given the Army a greater pool of applicants.
The services recently added a directive aimed at finding and discharging gang members. One clue: tattoos that may indicate group membership or philosophical leaning. Seminars also tell soldiers that they may become prime targets for recruitment by various groups once they exit the service, says Mr. Kelley of AMVETS.
"Homeland Security got criticized – 'How can you say this about our brave young men and women?' – but the fact of the matter is the Army has recognized this," says Mr. Korb. "The Army does recognize the threat, and I give the Army a lot of credit for how they're handling this."
Only a tiny percentage of US soldiers and veterans are susceptible to extremist entreaties.
At the same time, there have long been connections between former soldiers and nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations, says TJ Leyden, a former white supremacist who served in the United States Marine Corps. That tradition, he asserts, continues to some extent despite the military's efforts.
"I love the United States military," he says, "But I do worry about the brass ... being more concerned about putting more bodies on the ground than getting the proper people in there."