In the late 1980s, Chuck Leek was an aviation electrician stationed at Naval Base San Diego, home of the Pacific Fleet. There, he worked on electrical systems that ran through Navy helicopters. He says he was a “full-on skinhead.”
Leek, now 54, has cut ties with the white supremacist movement and works to bring others out of it. While in the military in California, Leek and two other neo-Nazis he met while in training formed a skinhead gang, rented a house together and began working to recruit other active-duty servicemembers.
Military commanders largely looked the other way.
“The Navy experience was a minor contributing factor to my radicalization process. I wasn’t open with it to everybody, but when I got a sense that people in my command were OK with racism, I got more explicit about it. And that was more common than you might expect,” he told CQ Roll Call.
Leek’s story, though decades old, resonates today.
Dozens of veterans and active-duty servicemembers participated in the deadly pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol in January, pushing the military’s white supremacist problem into the forefront and dividing lawmakers and administration officials over how — or even whether — to proceed.
Some members of Congress fear that extremists run rampant in the military, while others warn of a witch hunt if the issue is pursued overzealously. But experts and those like Leek with firsthand experience say the military has a problem, even if it lurks largely below the surface.
Congress will almost certainly attempt to legislate on the issue as work on the annual Pentagon policy bill gets underway this spring. But without reliable data, the differences between lawmakers will likely remain stark.
“The bottom line is that nobody knows how many white supremacists or anti-government extremists are serving in active duty or the reserves. The military has never set up the structure to track people who were kicked out for this reason, and they don’t know what they don’t know,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Pentagon officials confirmed the lack of available information.
“We don’t know the full breadth and depth of this,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon in February. “It may be more than we’re comfortable feeling and admitting, and probably a lot less than the media attention surrounding it seems to suggest it could be. But where is it? It’s just not clear.”
The exact numbers of extremists in the ranks, however, may not be as important as the impact they have.
“Our research over the past 20 years indicates that the number we’re talking about is pretty small compared to the 2 million or so people in the military. But that small group can cause problems disproportionate to their numbers,” Pitcavage said.
Some say the Pentagon may have a better idea of the scope of the issue than it lets on.
“The Pentagon has said they have no idea for decades, but they have an idea,” Leek said.
‘Program of infiltration’
In 1987, Leek and some of his fellow servicemembers joined a larger local skinhead group called “The Bomber Boys.”
That year, the group was the subject of a three-part special aired on San Diego’s CBS affiliate. Leek was interviewed for the segment, as was Tom Metzger, a leader of the white supremacist movement who was the former California grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and a founder of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR).
Leek impressed Metzger, and Metzger contacted him after the interview. Together, the pair founded the San Diego chapter of WAR.
“We were already overtly racist and doing a lot of wild stuff, but Metzger brought us into the organization and made it official,” Leek said.
Then, they started recruiting. Leek himself built a group of over a dozen white supremacists among active-duty Marines and sailors in San Diego, he said.
“Metzger was pushing this program of infiltration on us. We were recruiting members of the military into the white supremacist movement with the idea of turning them into assets for later. Metzger was always telling us to find people who would get rank, and blend in. The idea was to install our people in positions of power and keep them there for the long term,” Leek said.
According to Leek, Metzger urged members of WAR to recruit people without criminal records or tattoos — people who “didn’t fit the look of the movement.” Those people would be able to keep a low profile and install themselves in the highest levels of the military and law enforcement.
Metzger died last year at the age of 84.
In a 2006 bulletin about the infiltration of law enforcement by such white supremacists, the FBI called those who flew under the radar “ghost skins,” extremists who are not overt in their display of radical beliefs but rather “blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.”
“I think they’re out there, no question,” Leek said. “And the fact that they’re difficult to track down is indicative of their strategy working. That’s the point.”
The driving force behind the white supremacist movement, and the recruitment of servicemembers, is to prepare for what they believe will be a race war, during which supremacists in positions of power would aid the movement by internally thwarting government efforts from stopping violence. White supremacists hope that a race war will lead to the creation of a white ethnostate within the U.S.
Leek’s time as a military recruiter for Metzger ended in 1988 when he and a fellow skinhead, Frank Tokash, who was 18 at the time, were convicted on a slew of charges stemming from the beating of a Latino man, Humberto Huerta. Huerta survived the beating with a broken jaw, and Leek served 22 months in prison for the assault.
Leek was discharged from the military because of the civilian charges brought against him. But when the Naval Criminal Investigative Service conducted an investigation of its own into Leek and his involvement with the white supremacist movement, Leek lied to investigators and denied any wrongdoing.
The NCIS found that Leek had not violated any military rules, and closed the investigation.
In retrospect, Leek said, the Navy's decision to essentially exonerate him is illustrative of some of the problems still plaguing the military.
“The way I read it, what we did was a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They really have to make their policies more clear, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy for racially motivated incidents,” he said.
The UCMJ has been criticized in recent months as being too vague in its prohibition of extremist activities. Currently, under DoD Instruction 1325.06, members of the military are prohibited from “active participation” in hate groups. That means servicemembers cannot fundraise, recruit or train other members for hate groups, but they can be passive members with no real consequence.
But, as Leek put it, “there’s no such thing as a non-active member of a white supremacist group.”
White supremacists and other extremist groups have long targeted current and former members of the military for recruitment, experts say, prizing their training, access to weapons and leadership skills.
“Most of these groups are prioritizing military and law enforcement experience — and the numbers from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, where 1 in 5 people charged had military connections, bear that out,” said Margaret Huang, the CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group known for pursuing litigation against white supremacist and extremist groups, among others.
A colleague of Huang’s, a research analyst with the SPLC who declined to be named to discuss their work candidly, agreed.
“The most respected people in these groups are skilled and have military training. The members without military experience look up to the veterans in these groups, who become sort of heroes,” the analyst said.
According to the analyst, extremist groups use veteran members to legitimize themselves, as people with military or law enforcement experience are often highly respected.
Experts say the relationship goes both ways, as extremist groups often mimic the military in ways that some veterans find familiar and comforting.
“What many of these groups seem to provide is a sort of social network and a familiar internal structure to veterans. A lot of militias use ranks, for instance, or do field exercises in the same way the military might,” the analyst said.
According to the analyst, veterans are most likely to join an extremist group within two to three years of leaving the military when many veterans feel disillusioned with the government. Even if they weren’t radicalized before, they can quickly become so.
“Decisions are made for servicemembers that are often political, made by people who don’t know them. And veterans can feel used, which pushes them to feel that the government is not their friend,” the analyst said.
This is the first of a two-part series on extremism in the military’s ranks. The second part will focus on the issue of tracking extremists and legislative solutions.