Military-Trained Gang Members Worry FBI, Oklahoma Law Enforcement
Lori Fullbright, News 9
LAWTON, Oklahoma -- News 9 supports our men and women in the military and their families. But there is a problem that's become so serious; the FBI calls it a threat to our national security.
The FBI has identified 53 different gangs in the military. They are in every branch, although it's worse in the Army, Army Reserves and National Guard.
Oklahoma police departments say the average person has no idea how big a problem it is.
As the war ends, gang member soldiers come home and are tougher to take down because of their weapons and combat training--training we paid for.
Gang members in the military are tagging their gang affiliation on Humvees and walls overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shocking images show members of the military wearing fatigues and flashing gang signs.
"They show their weapons, flash their gang signs while wearing their Army uniforms, things like that. And it's not just the Army, it's in every branch," said Lawton Police Lt. Darrell Southerland.
Southerland runs the gangs unit for the Lawton Police Department. He's encountered gang members from Fort Sill first-hand.
He says when gang members leave the military and come home, they share what they've learned about weapons and takedown tactics with their fellow gang members.
Police officers just aren't prepared to go up against such military training. Plus, the FBI says these gang members are stealing guns, ammunition, even grenades.
"You start dealing with AK-47's, things like that. It's pretty dangerous. Officers don't realize how that bullet will penetrate a car, walls, everything. You better take it real serious," Southerland said.
The FBI says in the past three years, officers in more than 100 different jurisdictions have encountered gang members with active or former military experience.
Several years ago, Army Sergeant Juwan Johnson went to a park not far from his base in Germany to be initiated into the Gangster Disciples gang.
He was beaten by eight other soldiers in a jump-in. The 25-year-old died from his injuries.
"It is shocking to be honest with you. We are fighting in a war, jumping a military guy into your gang and wind up getting him killed, it's a shame."
In California, a Marine gang member called in a fake shooting so he could ambush police when they arrived.
Using his military tactics and a high powered rifle, he killed one officer and injured another. And this type of violence is happening in Oklahoma too.
"Some of the clubs around here have gang members rapping at each other, both in the military but in different gangs. They start shooting at each other. We've actually had several murders like that," Southerland said.
Some gang members get into the military to escape the street life and to turn their lives around, but others reconnect with their gang once inside.
Other gangs actually recruit their young members who don't yet have criminal records to join the military to get the training and experience, then come back and train others.
Despite their oath to Uncle Sam, officers say the oath to their gang is greater.
"They'll always be loyal to that gang, no matter what," Southerland said.
Lt Southerland says the problem will never go away completely because there have been gangs in the military as long as there's been a military. But he does believe it's getting worse.
He also believes the pressure to recruit big numbers because of the war has led the military to take people with gang affiliations. He believes acknowledging the problem is the first step toward fixing it.
"A lot of people think I'm anti-military. I'm not against the military. I have family in the military. I just think that's disrespect to the guys who are fallen. These guys get over here and act like idiots; they come back home and act like idiots. They are killing people, robbing people. It's just a shame," Southerland said.
It's not just in the lower ranks. Military expert Hunter Glass says gang membership is showing up in ranks as high as captains.
He says outlaw motorcycle gang members are getting into special forces and the navy seals. In his opinion the Air Force does the best job of keeping gangs out.
The U.S. Department of Defense said in a statement they "aggressively" investigate and prosecute gang activity. The department says they "deny entry to those who do not renounce participation in criminal gangs."
The following is the full statement from the DOD:
"DoDI 1325.06, Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces, which is currently in revision with an updated publication due out soon, addresses military members who actively participate in criminal gang activity. Section 8 of this Instruction provides a detailed list of prohibited activities. Specifically, in Section 8.b., it states "Active participation in such gangs or organizations is prohibited. Further, Section 8.c. states that "Commanders have the authority to employ the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions, including administrative separation or appropriate criminal action, against military personnel who engage in activities prohibited in paragraphs 8.a. or 8.b. of this enclosure when such conduct or activity is detrimental to good order and discipline or is service discrediting."