Gangs and the US Military

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I was stationed in Alaska in 1992 when the Rodney King uprising (also known as the Los Angeles riots) occurred. I was glued to the TV watching CNN and darn glad I was an Air Force cop in Anchorage and not an LA cop or sheriff�s deputy. Fifty-three people were killed during those riots, including many Korean and other Asian storeowners. You saw thousands of minority Californians committing crimes right in front of TV cameras.

What was not readily apparent to the TV viewer was the dramatic influence the street gangs of the greater LA area were having on the violence. They were taking advantage of the civil unrest to commit crimes and settle old scores against rival gangs.

What I did not hear from the media was that almost every gang in LA had a chapter in Las Vegas and there was an attempt to project the same unchecked crime in that Nevada city that was going on in LA. The Clark County Metropolitan Sheriff�s Department, however, quickly put a stop to the violence. The 1992 US police officer of the year was a Clark County Deputy who led the counter charge in stopping the violence.

Nellis Air Force Base sets on the edge of Las Vegas. I discovered after the Air Force moved me to that base in 1993 that thousands of people holding military IDs who either lived in Las Vegas or were on vacation there made a desperate flight to the Air Base for safety. The powers to be at the base did not know what was happening, so they let everyone on base.

Later, there was the possibility of renewed riots. The senior leadership did not want to again deal with thousands of extra people on their base, so a plan was drawn up to refuse military ID card holders who were not stationed at Nellis AFB entry (and safe haven). I do not think most military folks in the area knew about that rule. Apparently, people who had helped defend their country were to be left to the mercy of the street gangs. Being in Las Vegas, Nellis AFB is a very popular location for senior military members to make official visits, and bring their spouses.

The interest in gangs was very high and, unfortunately, members of the Security Police squadron, of which I became commander, had put together a great briefing on gangs. Unfortunately, because every time a general came to town I had to send my cops to entertain the wives with the latest scary gang stories.

Now, it would appear that the military has its own gang problem. There have always been people in the military that had gang affiliations from back home. Good old white boys who had been members of the KKK or inner city persons who had been street gang members. Back in the days when the military had a draft, being an ex-gang member would not keep you from being drafted into the armed services. The Department of Defense just looked the other way.

If you pay close attention the next time you see film footage of Iraq or Afghanistan, you will see street gang signs that spray-painted on the walls as the troops patrol. Gang members are joining the military to get combat training that they can take back to their home turf and employ these new skills against rival gangs. I have found information that it is estimated that one percent of the US military has some type of gang affiliation.

One percent does not sound like much, but when you have over 2.5 million US citizens in uniform that means there could be tens of thousands of gang members in the ranks. These gang-bangers are in uniform, projecting their hate and violence on the base populace and the surrounding civilian community.

When I was with the Wichita Falls, Texas police department, I worked an armed robbery and shooting that turned out to be committed by three Airmen from Sheppard AFB. When I went to the jail to take their possessions as evidence, all three future ex-Airmen had gang tattoos on their bodies. They had the weekend off from the military and they reverted to what they knew how to do best; perpetrate violence on the unsuspecting public. You have to be fairly bright to enlist in the Air Force, so I would suggest that not all gang members are dumb thugs who mindlessly wander around looking for victims. There is malice-of-forethought here by young, bright minds in military uniforms that could hurt you very badly.

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Copyright 2008, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.