For decades, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have quietly kicked out some of the worst white supremacists in their ranks, offering them administrative discharges that leave no public record of their hateful activity, a USA TODAY review of Navy documents found.
The documents, obtained via a public-records request by the open-government advocacy group American Oversight, detail 13 major investigations into white supremacist activity in the Navy and Marine Corps over more than 20 years. They show a pattern in which military leaders chose to deal with personnel involved in extremism by dismissing them in ways that would not attract public attention.
Take what happened to Edward Fix and Jacob Laskey.
In the early hours of Dec. 10, 2000, three white men left a neo-Nazi rally and headed to downtown Jacksonville, Florida. They were looking for a Black person to beat up, according to the Navy records.
On Main Street, they found John Joseph Newsome, 44. They beat him severely with their fists, boots and a broken bottle, all the while shouting “Kill the n—–,” according to the documents.
Then they went looking for another victim.
The trio was soon arrested and charged with aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and committing a hate crime. All three pleaded guilty to felonies and were sentenced to varying terms in the Duval County jail.
But two of the men faced another investigation. Fix and Laskey were enlisted members of the United States Navy, serving at nearby bases.
Yet the two sailors never faced military charges, which likely would have resulted in them being dishonorably discharged if they had been found guilty.
Instead, the Navy dismissed them via administrative discharges. Their only punishment from the Navy for almost beating a man to death in a racially-motivated hate crime was to lose their jobs, documents show.
Fix and Laskey entered civilian life with barely a blot on their military record. Fix fared even better: Because he had cooperated with civilian prosecutors, the felony conviction never went on his record.
The Navy records describe investigations into allegations of white supremacist assault, theft, verbal abuse, threats and even gang crimes between 1997 and 2020.
One investigation involved members of a white supremacist gang called the “RRR”— an apparent nod to the KKK — who branded themselves with lighters and got in fights with nonwhite Marines.
In another case, a female sailor started one of the earliest online white supremacist message boards. She bragged about her top-secret security clearance while writing screeds about Hitler, Jews and Black people.
Not one of the 13 investigations resulted in a military trial, known as a court-martial, according to the documents. That’s the only way a member of the military can receive what’s called a “punitive discharge” such as a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge.
Instead, some of the personnel received small fines or pay cuts. Most of the troops who were let go received a general discharge under honorable conditions, the most mild administrative discharge.
Besides the 13 cases, records for another 10 have not been released because they are being reviewed, said a spokeswoman for the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service, which investigates felony-level criminal activity.
Most of the cases in the documents were never written about in the media. The names of Navy personnel are redacted, along with other identifying details. USA TODAY identified a few through other sources, but most remain anonymous.
What most of the accused white supremacists went on to do after leaving the Navy is also unknown.
Laskey became one of America’s most violent and notorious neo-Nazis. At the time of the beating, he already sported a chest tattoo of a swastika, according to the civilian prosecutor who handled his case.
Less than two years after the Navy let him go, Laskey was involved in an attack on a synagogue full of worshippers. He was convicted of throwing bricks etched with swastikas through the windows of the temple. After spending more than a decade in prison, he was released in 2018, only to quickly be charged with assaulting and stabbing another neo-Nazi.
He was released in 2020, sporting a mask of facial tattoos including the words “white power” inked across his jawbone.
Laskey could not be reached for comment. Fix, whose last known address was in Rochester, New York, didn’t respond to calls.
Navy officials said the documents viewed by USA TODAY represent only the most severe instances of white supremacy investigated in the ranks. Most incidents are dealt with internally rather than being formally investigated, according to military law experts and service members. That means there’s no paper trail.
The military doesn’t track how many people are removed for extremist activity, but there are signs that incidents of white supremacy are rising among troops, reflecting a surge in hate crimes among the general population.
More than a third of active-duty military personnel reported seeing white supremacist or ideologically driven racism while on duty, according to a 2019 survey by the Military Times. It’s higher for nonwhite members of the military. The 36% of respondents who reported seeing white supremacist or racist ideologies on display was up from 22% in 2018.
“As a country, we haven’t decided that white supremacy is something that we really want to acknowledge, let alone address in a major way,” said Sarah Vinson, a forensic psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine.
If the military truly wants to ferret out white supremacy, she said, transparency and consequences are critical. “If you allow things to go unchecked, they don’t magically get better and go away — they escalate.”
Navy officials said the service has always taken accusations of white supremacy seriously.
“The Navy does not tolerate extremist or supremacist behavior,” Lt. Andrew DeGarmo, a Navy spokesman, wrote in a statement. “Participation in supremacist or extremist activities is directly contrary to professionalism standards all Sailors are expected to follow, and the Navy will investigate and hold Sailors accountable for such actions.”
The documents detail instances of sailors spreading white supremacist propaganda, like one who handed out flyers for the KKK in the small California town where he was stationed. That sailor received a “general discharge under honorable conditions,” which is slightly less well-regarded than an honorable discharge.
In some of the cases, experts agree that administrative discharges may have been the appropriate punishment, despite the seriousness of the allegations.
Elizabeth Gallagher, a sailor stationed in Hawaii, launched one of the first white supremacist internet message boards, according to the records. She received an administrative discharge under “other than honorable conditions.” USA TODAY couldn’t reach Gallagher, who was stationed in Hawaii until her discharge in February 2003.
Experts said an administrative discharge was the fastest way to deal with her because she didn’t commit a crime.
Other cases are less clear.
The documents state that the six members of the “RRR” gang were allegedly involved in “multiple physical and verbal confrontations with black Marines.” But Navy investigators ultimately concluded that the Marines didn’t violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s criminal statute.
Outside the military, racially-motivated fights can be prosecuted as hate crimes in most states. Military prosecutors didn’t have that option because no specific section of the military criminal code refers to extremism or white supremacist activity.
Ultimately, all six Marines were allowed to leave the Navy with general discharges “under honorable conditions.”
That “indicates how little the military cares about these issues,” said Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “You can do the most heinous things in terms of racism, bigotry, extremist groups and there is no cost to you whatsoever.”
“Now you’ve been trained by the military and you’re unleashed on the civilian population,” Beirich said.
From the documents, it’s clear that Laskey, one of the sailors convicted of beating the Black man in Jacksonville, Florida, received an administrative discharge under “other than honorable conditions.”
Fix, his codefendant, left the Navy a few months later, but the type of discharge he received remains a secret.
“Due to personal privacy concerns, we cannot release the characterization of discharge from service for an individual,” DeGarmo, the Navy spokesman, wrote.
Even if Fix received an “other than honorable” discharge like Laskey, that punishment is nowhere near as severe as a felony conviction, said Geoffrey Corn, a law professor and former military prosecutor who served in the Army for 21 years.
“I’ve been a chief prosecutor for a big Army base and if I had a soldier who, with that motive, went out and participated in a beating of anybody, I would’ve recommended that the commander refer the case to trial by court-martial,” Corn said. “That would result in a criminal conviction, a felony record, probably some jail time and most likely a bad conduct discharge.”
An “other than honorable” discharge isn’t a clean slate, however.
Most employers ask applicants whether they have served in the military and, if so, what type of discharge they received, said Philip Cave, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. Veterans with anything less than an honorable discharge will be flagged for review, he said.
An “other than honorable” discharge means the individual must petition the military in order to receive veterans’ benefits.
“It does carry a stigma,” Cave said. “However, I know of two people who left the military with ‘other than honorable’ discharges who have become lawyers, which means they got through a very stringent bar background check.”
The investigations shared with USA TODAY represent just a sliver of the white supremacist activity in the Navy and Marine Corps, according to experts and current and former Navy personnel.
The vast majority of incidents involving race-related hate and physical and verbal abuse are dealt with quickly and quietly by unit commanders, said Cave, who has practiced military law for four decades.
“There are any number of these incidents,” he said.
Jason Smedley, who has served in the Marines for 20 years in active duty and as a reservist, was involved in one of them.
Smedley was attacked by two white Marines in infantry school in 2001. One of the men held Smedley while the other punched him repeatedly in a vicious beating. It “knocked most of my teeth to the roof of my mouth,” Smedley said.
He said the assault was clearly racially motivated, but it was never investigated as such.
“It was just treated like any other fight,” Smedley said. “As I’m standing there, bloodied, the instructor came over and made us shake hands in front of the entire platoon, which was so humiliating — shaking hands with the guy who just beat me up.”
Smedley loves the Marines. He said boot camp was the first place he truly felt equal as a human being. But he acknowledged that racist and bias-driven incidents haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.
“What I wrote to my commander is that you are basically allowing another unit, another commander, to deal with this person,” Smedley said. “By him not holding that Marine accountable, he was going on to be someone else’s problem.”
Thanks to the internet, these days journalists and anti-fascist activists quickly learn about racists in the ranks, whose names are splashed across the Web. That forces military leaders to acknowledge, and in rare cases court-martial, the perpetrators.
The last few years have seen a rash of white supremacy incidents in the military, particularly in the Marine Corps, which has discharged at least five Marines for extremist ties since 2017.
Recent cases of racist activity, like that of Lance Cpl. Mason Mead, a Marine who tweeted offensive photos including one of explosives laid out in the shape of a swastika, have quickly garnered public attention.
The Navy swiftly ousted Mead and even revealed the type of discharge he received — a general discharge with other than honorable conditions — in a public statement.
“They couldn’t ignore those incidents that got attention,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of One People’s Project, who has exposed far-right extremists for three decades.
Military leaders have acknowledged the problem of white supremacy and other types of extremism in their ranks in the last few years.
In 2018, the Department of Defense sent then-Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a letter outlining 27 reports of extremist activities by service members in the previous five years. It included cases like that of Marine Lance Cpl. Vasillios G. Pistolis, who, as ProPublica reported, had ties to the neo-Nazi domestic terrorist group Atomwaffen Division.
Other recent high-profile incidents of white supremacy in the Marines and Navy include Marine Sgt. Michael Chesny and Staff Sgt. Joseph Manning, who were arrested in 2017 for trespassing after unfurling a banner with the slogan “YWNRU.” That stands for “You Will Not Replace Us,” the slogan chanted at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that year.
Manning received an administrative discharge. The Navy hasn’t released the type of discharge Chesny received.
In 2018, Lance Cpl. Liam Collins was removed from the Marines after he was exposed for posting on a white supremacist forum. He faces federal charges of conspiring to illegally manufacture weapons, ammunition, and suppressors. The case is ongoing. The Navy hasn’t disclosed what type of discharge he received.
All those cases were covered by the media. If you Google their names, those stories come up. But most cases from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s never received widespread publicity.
A good example from the Navy documents is the case of Gallagher, who once went by the online handle “Panzerbyrd88,” a reference to a German tank and Adolf Hitler.
USA TODAY was able to identify Gallagher as one of the Marines in the documents because the Navy documents refer to One People’s Project.
“Oh, I remember Liz Gallagher,” said Jenkins, founder of the group. “The military were very serious about her.”
The U.S. Naval Criminal Intelligence Service spent more than a year investigating Gallagher, the records show. The documents show Gallagher had become romantically involved with an Army soldier who introduced her to the white supremacist scene.
Messages found on Gallagher’s computer showed she was spreading the word about events and rallies organized by the KKK and other white supremacist groups, according to the documents. She sported a tattoo of a symbol used by racist organizations, the documents say.
According to the documents, when the investigation was done, Gallagher requested, and was granted, an “other than honorable” discharge in lieu of facing a court-martial.
Apart from a brief entry on One People’s Project’s website, Gallagher’s case was never written about in the media. The story of how a member of the Navy created a forum for neo-Nazis to swap conspiracy theories about Jews and nonwhites was essentially hidden from public view for almost 20 years.
At least 38 of the defendants charged so far with attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 served in the military, according to a USA TODAY analysis. The prevalence of veterans in the mob spurred military leaders and Congress to renew calls to address extremism in the armed services.
‘Colossal’ breakdown: FBI warning not fully shared before Capitol riot; police lacked training, gear
More: Pennsylvania police officer arrested by FBI for alleged participation in US Capitol riot, suspended
In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a one-day stand-down order during which all other activity should cease so military commanders could assess extremism in the ranks. Last week, Austin issued a memo outlining the Pentagon’s plans to tackle extremism in the military, including stepped-up screening of military recruits and revising the official Department of Defense definition of extremism.
This year, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., plans to reintroduce a bill that would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to outlaw extremist activity in the military.
Speier’s bill would make it easier for the military to track violent extremism within its ranks. The Navy, for example, doesn’t know how many service members have been dismissed for extremist activity.
Speier’s proposed amendment was removed from last year’s military spending bill, despite easily passing the House of Representatives. Speier claims it was removed to placate former President Donald Trump, who argued that claims of domestic extremism were overblown. GOP lawmakers said the bill failed because they disagreed on how to tackle the problem.
Last year’s defense legislation did create the position of a deputy inspector general in the military to track issues related to diversity and extremism. Speier and other critics say that’s not enough.
“The problem is that we have violent extremists in the military and we don’t have a law that is clear enough,” Speier said. “We have regulations on the books that basically allow you to be a member of a white supremacist group as long as you’re not actively participating in it.”