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The neo-Nazi boot: Inside one Marine’s descent into extremism

The former Marine junior ROTC cadet and North Carolinian was interested in communism and antifa before he joined a neo-Nazi organization known as Atomwaffen Division — an organization described by some as a terror group. His ideology has drifted across a spectrum of contradictions from antifa — a group whose name stems from “anti-fascists” and…

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The neo-Nazi boot: Inside one Marine’s descent into extremism

The former Marine junior ROTC cadet and North Carolinian was interested in communism and antifa before he joined a neo-Nazi organization known as Atomwaffen Division — an organization described by some as a terror group.

His ideology has drifted across a spectrum of contradictions from antifa — a group whose name stems from “anti-fascists” and is known to use violence against those it deems fascist or supremacist — to a hate group prepping for a race war and the collapse of the U.S. government.

Marine Lance Cpl. Vasillios G. Pistolis ultimately was booted from Corps mid-summer 2018 for his ties to a hate group. But, his ability to enlist in the Corps highlights a challenge to the military recruiters armed with few tools from records checks to interviews to keep supremacists out of the ranks.

An investigation into his hate group ties by Naval Criminal Investigative Service — obtained by Marine Corps Times through a government records request — reads like a psychological evaluation into extremist thought and behavior, detailing his own path to radicalization and views on various hate groups.

In June 2018, Pistolis was sentenced before a military court to 28 days confinement, reduction in rank to E-1 and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month. He was booted from the Marine Corps in July 2018.

Military officials told Marine Corps Times that Pistolis required no waivers to enlist in the Marine Corps, except a minor medical exception.

Pistolis had no physical paper trail or a criminal background that would connect him to radical groups or extremist ideologies.

That was until a bombshell 2018 ProPublica story exposed his online chat logs and participation in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

It was Pistolis’ digital fingerprints that became his downfall, when his ­commitment to extremist notions was laid bare.

An NCIS cyber review of Pistolis’ confiscated laptop found 279 webpages, 1279 Google searches, 17 videos and six Facebook photos of “evidentiary value,” according to the investigation.

Alarming terms such as “mini 14 supressor,” “balaclava,” “mini 14 anders brevik,” “mini 14 folding stock,” “north hollywood shooters equipment,” “north hollywood shootout museum,” “skull mask,” among others, were found in Pistolis’ search history.

Anders Behring Breivik is a far-right extremist responsible for the July 2011 terror attack in Norway. Breivik killed eight people in a bombing in Oslo and shot up a youth camp on Utoya island, killing 69.

The search term “north Hollywood shooters equipment” may refer to the 1997 shootout between the Los Angeles Police Department and heavily armed bank robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu. The bank robbers were killed in the shootout and 11 police ­officers were wounded.

Pistolis’ searches on Amazon and eBay showed he was interested in a ­vintage fiberglass hockey goalie mask, U.S. Army improvised munitions, U.S. ­explosives demolitions handbooks, an Ak-AKM rifle builders manual, a gun silencer manual and a sports Ruger mini-14 scope mount.

The search terms are troubling, especially in light of a 2008 FBI report that warned of extremist groups infiltrating the U.S. military to exploit training that could help lone wolfs to carry out violent acts.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League said 2018 was the “fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970,” in the U.S.

Pistolis’ path to extremism may have started around 2012

Lance Cpl. Vasillios G. Pistolis told investigators that while he was in middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina, he became interested in antifa and ­communism through a friend.

He said he knew of some Ku Klux Klan members at the time, but his first conversation with a national socialist was through Xbox live — the online video game portal for Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console.

But it wasn’t until President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 when Pistolis began to view communism and antifa as “stupid,” he told investigators.

At a Trump rally at an unknown location in 2016, Pistolis claimed he was assaulted by a member of antifa. This was all before Pistolis joined the Corps.

At that time in his life, Pistolis told investigators that he considered himself a conservative or a patriot, and then drifted toward libertarian views.

While in the Corps, Pistolis started researching the “Unite the Right” movement, fascism, national socialism and National Bolshevism.

He then attended “Unite the Right” rallies in ­Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Charlottesville in 2017.

The Charlottesville rally turned deadly when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer.

Fields, who is alleged to have ties with neo-Nazis, was convicted of first-degree murder, among other charges, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Pistolis said he joined Atomwaffen in 2017 for “shock value.” He described the group to investigators as a “prepper group for the collapse of the United States government,” and said that the “government will collapse and there will be World War III.”

The Anti-Defamation League characterizes ­Atomwaffen as a “small neo-Nazi group whose ­members are preparing for a race war to combat what they consider the cultural and racial displacement of the white race.”

Pistolis said he left Atomwaffen in October 2017, describing the leaders of the group as Satanists who purposely leaked his chat logs to ProPublica.

At an October 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Tennessee, Pistolis told investigators he met the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, or TWP.

The Southern Poverty Law Center described TWP as a “neo-Nazi group that advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems.”

But Pistolis described himself as a “nationalist” to investigators and that he did not want white ­supremacy.

He characterized militia groups as “live action players,” called the Three Percenters “f*cking gay,” and said that the Vanguard hate group was “pretty much dead.”

The Three Percenters came out of the 2009 militia resurgence following the election of President Barack Obama, the ADL says. The group believes only 3 ­percent of colonialist fought against the British during the Revolutionary War.

“Three Percenters view themselves as modern day versions of those revolutionaries, fighting against a tyrannical U.S. government rather than the British,” the ADL website states.

The ADL says that the Vanguard hate group “­opposes multiculturalism and believes America should be an exclusively white nation.”

Pistolis’ drift toward extremism was largely hidden in the cyber realm, which creates a vexing problem for the U.S. military and recruiters seeking to block the entrance of supremacists into military.

“The digital footprints afford some of the best insights into whether or not someone is already expressing some kind of commitment to extremist ideology,” John Horgan, a professor at Georgia State University. He is also the author of “The Psychology of Terrorism.”

But, Horgan admits, providing those tools and authorities to the U.S. military to screen potential recruits would raise a number of questions about privacy and freedom of speech.

Marine Corps Recruiting Command says the screening process for “aberrant thinking and behavior” is a “multi-layered” approach that involves police records checks, records of convictions and a signed statement and screening form that addresses gangs and racist or extremist organizations and activities.

In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, white nationalist demonstrators walk into the entrance of Lee Park surrounded by counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Steve Helber/AP)

Whether those tools are sufficient and whether the military understands the social dynamics and ­psychology underpinning young Americans’ recruitment into extremist groups is questionable.

Pistolis had no criminal background, his earlier political viewpoints while in school in Charlotte were polar opposites until after Trump’s election. His radicalization process occurred silently online and continued into his entry in the Corps.

“The problem here is that we often place too much emphasis on the ideology, and we think that will tell us something about the motivation,” Horgan said.

“People can become involved in extremism ­irrespective of what shade it is or ideology,” Horgan explained.

Pistolis’ shift from antifa to a neo-Nazi organization is not surprising to Horgan. He says “extremism is full of contradictions.”

Many extremists are “drifters,” the ideology is often less important than the psychological and social benefits to belonging to a group, according to Horgan.

And “with that comes a pressure to prove oneself” and a “natural eagerness to please, and with the right circumstances that can sometimes result in greater lethality,” Horgan said.

That social and psychological dynamic is valuable to movements like Atomwaffen that may “sense ­opportunity” from an operational and messaging perspective, Horgan said.

It’s a scenario he says has played out many times, “whether it’s Westerners joining the Taliban or ­English Protestants joining the IRA [Irish Republican Army].”

“It isn’t always about expressing beliefs,” that often can be faked, Horgan said.

Pistolis’ case is similar to a number of Marines outed in 2018 and 2019 by cyber activists doxing white supremacists’ identities online.

In May, Lance Cpl. Piercy was administratively separated from the Corps for his ties to a hate group, according to Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a Marine spokesman.

Piercy, who was assigned to 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance ­Battalion, 4th Marine Division, was under investigation after leaked chat logs tied him to Identity Evropa.

The ADL says Identity Evropa “is a white ­supremacist group that is focused on the ­preservation of “white American identity and promoting white European culture.” The ADL also claims the group was founded by Marine veteran Nathan Damigo, who received an other-than-honorable-discharge from the Corps in 2007.

And, in June, the Corps said it was booting out Hawaii-based Lance Cpl. Mason Mead following an investigation into racists posts from the Twitter handle @Jacobite_Edward, which espoused Nazi propaganda. The social media account was alleged to be run by Mead.

These are just a handful of cases during the past couple of years. But, the total number of Marines booted for participation in hate groups over any stretch of time is difficult to nail down.

The only data available comes from a letter dated Aug. 24, 2018, from the Pentagon addressed to ­then-Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

In June, the Corps said it was booting out Hawaii-based Lance Cpl. Mason Mead following an investigation into racists posts from the Twitter handle @Jacobite_Edward, which espoused Nazi propaganda. The social media account was alleged to be run by Mead. (Screenshot of Tweet from Twitter account @Jacobite_Edward)

According to the letter, obtained by Marine Corps Times, there have been 27 reports of extremist ­activity by service members over the past five years, and 18 of those service members were “ultimately disciplined and/or separated” from the military.

Ellison requested the data from the Pentagon on U.S. service member participation in extremist groups following reports of Pistolis’ membership with ­Atomwaffen.

Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman with Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, told Marine Corps Times that there is no separation code that allows the Marines to track the number of people booted for ties to supremacist groups.

Many of these Marines are kicked out for failure to abide by a regulation, not specifically for ­participating in a hate group.

That makes it difficult to know exactly how ­entrenched the problem is. How many extremists or members of hate groups are slipping through the cracks of the military’s recruitment process?

Carlock did say that reporting requirements in the Corps’ new Prohibited Activities and ­Conduct policy does provide “some visibility on these offenses.”

“Commanders and Marines alike have the ­responsibility and opportunity to bring allegations of misconduct to the attention of their chain of command and/or law enforcement personnel for proper investigation and disposition,” Carlock said.

Moreover, the DoD letter to Ellison noted that the Officer of Personnel and Management and FBI signed a memo in November 2009 that gives OPM Federal Investigative Service access to the violent gang file of the National Criminal ­Information Center.

This access allows further scrutiny of U.S. military recruits who may have potential extremist ties.

Dillon Hopper, the founder of Vanguard ­America, told Marine Corps Times in 2018 that his organization includes about 200 members across the country. Hooper is also a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan.

He said that his organization includes “many” ­veterans and some Marines, but he would not disclose the number.

“For their safety, no active duty or reserve members are allowed to affiliate with my organization until their contract is fulfilled and their contract has ended,” Hopper told Marine Corps Times.

Dillon said his beliefs evolved when he was a teenager and “grew” while he was in the Corps as he “witnessed more and more social, societal and cultural decline on the United States.”

“I tolerated certain individuals being allowed into the Marines and allowed to ‘openly’ serve,” Dillon said.

“I tolerated the curtain of guise, the blanket of blatant deception, mindless obedience and senseless ­violence. I tolerated all that. I didn’t accept it. Tolerance is not acceptance,” Dillon said.

While it is difficult for the military and to track the number of service members booted for ties to extremist groups, military service law enforcement does partner with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to record service members’ participation in extremist groups.

Specialized training in weapons and explosives could provide deadly skills to extremist or supremacist groups. Though, not every service member booted for ties to hate group was packing lethal skills.

But some of the Marines separated from the Corps over the past couple of years had training with explosives and breaching. Mead, for example, was an assaultman with explosives training.

NCIS obtained phone calls from ­Pistolis while he was confined to the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina brig, which included discussions about getting his guns back, his disdain for journalists, and hate for people “since this happened.”

Pistolis also mentioned paintball, soccer and ­potentially leaving the U.S. to go to Greece.

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over…

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over U.S. forces in that part of Syria, according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban. “These actions are a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve to defend Coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their Defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” Urban said in an emailed statement. “The Defense Department has previously deployed Bradleys to northeast Syria pursuant to these goals.” Bradleys from the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team were last sent to Syria in late October 2019 to guard oil infrastructure from Islamic State militants, officials said at the time. They were quietly pulled out after roughly a month when combined patrols with Turkish forces “never materialized” and the “mission requirements changed,” a military official in the region previously told Army Times. The armored vehicles sent back this month belong to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit is deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield, which is based in Kuwait. Sign up for the Army Times Daily News Roundup Don’t miss the top Army stories, delivered each afternoon (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Army Times Daily News Roundup. “The mechanized infantry assets will help ensure the force protection of coalition forces in an increasingly complex operating environment in northeast Syria,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the Inherent Resolve mission. “The coalition forces remain steadfast in our commitment of ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS].” U.S. and Russian officials traded blame in late August after troops from both countries collided in northeast Syria while on patrol. A Russian vehicle sideswiped a light-armored American one, injuring four U.S. troops, while two Russian helicopters flew about 70 feet over top the altercation, U.S. officials said following the incident. For their part, Russian officials said U.S. troops were blocking their ground patrol and Russian military police “took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.” Though the U.S. and Russian militaries have protocols to prevent such incidents, there have nevertheless been less worrisome altercations periodically over the past year. Russian forces are in the country backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have long called for U.S. troops to leave. “The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary,” Urban added in his statement. Despite the loss of ISIS’ territorial caliphate and the slaying of its leader last year in a U.S. raid, the extremist group has continued to launch deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria. There are roughly 500 U.S. troops in Syria’s northeast guarding oil fields from ISIS and working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part…

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part of accounts run by government departments and U.S. officials. Friday yielded multiple mistakes of the sort when, first, the U.S. Department of State extended the U.S. Air Force a happy 73rd birthday wish that was accompanied by an image featuring F/A-18 Hornets flown by the Navy’s Blue Angels. The image, which depicts the obvious blue and gold color scheme unique to the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, includes one plane that even shows the underside of its wings, a part that universally includes “US NAVY” painted in size 11-million block font. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstrate the capabilities of the F/A-18 Hornet at the 2019 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show on MCAS Miramar, Calif., Sept. 28. (Pfc. Mackson/Marine Corps) Echoing the State Department, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent the Air Force some birthday well wishes that, again, were accompanied by the Navy’s world-renowned team. Never a state to be outdone, Texas Congressman John Carter ramped up the Air Force birthday-Blue Angels whoops parade with a jumbled image featuring an F-22 Raptor, the Blue Angels, and his campaign insignia. Even the mistakes are bigger in Texas. Sign up for the Early Bird Brief Get the military’s most comprehensive news and information every morning (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief. (Screengrab @JudgeJohnCarter) Navy officials eventually caught on to the trend of gross misidentification. “Happy birthday @usairforce, but we’re not giving you the @BlueAngels,” the Navy Chief of Information account tweeted. “Aircraft carriers are also only @USNavy.” Most of the proofreading-free accounts wisely deleted their misguided well-wishes once they arrived at the realization that a plane in the air does not automatically render it an Air Force plane. But thanks to Politico editor and dad joke connoisseur Dave Brown, there remains a treasure trove of commemorative screenshots. Aim high pic.twitter.com/VUsN1TOfO8— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) September 18, 2020 Still, the Air Force’s birthday was just another example of a profound lack of basic military understanding by those who so often boast of military adoration until blue in the face. A campaign arm of the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, for example, recently circulated a “Support Our Troops” graphic featuring silhouetted Russian soldiers — one holding a Russian-made AK-74 rifle and another a German-made G36K — underneath three Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, a slip-up first reported by Politico. In theory the sentiment is not incorrect, since there was no specification on which troops are being supported. Still, it was just one of the litany of military-related social media fallacies to emerge during this week alone. The image, which was poached from a Shutterstock photo, was created by Russia-based photographer Arthur Zakirov, who confirmed to Politico that the campaign image was “a completely recreated scene from various photographs of mine.” “Today you hear about the Kremlin’s hand in U.S. politics,” he joked. “Tomorrow you are this hand.” In Soviet Russia, troops support you. The image marked another foreign service miscue for the administration, which, in 2015, tweeted a campaign graphic featuring Nazi Waffen SS World War II reenactors in the bottom right corner. [email protected] has deleted the tweet (finally) but here’s the pic, Waffen-SS very clear at bottom pic.twitter.com/Kv1GsdKQkw— John Schindler (@20committee) July 14, 2015 But don’t fret about a politicized slant on military-themed miscues — these inaccuracies on the part of politicians are a bipartisan pastime. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden made headlines recently for exhibiting a concerning pattern of recounting military stories that never actually happened. In 2019 Biden recalled a harrowing tale of a Navy captain in Afghanistan that was flooded with acts of extraordinary valor. “This is the God’s truth,” Biden told the meeting hall in New Hampshire. “My word as a Biden.” Interviews conducted by the Washington Post of more than a dozen troops, commanders and Biden campaign personnel, however, revealed that nearly every detail of “God’s truth” was false. Biden, the Post reported, appeared to combine portions of three separate events into a single story. Then there was 2012, when the Democratic National Convention showcased glorious footage of Russian ships steaming powerfully across open seas as a way to honor U.S. troops and their service. (As our friend Paul Szoldra over at Task and Purpose points out, there truly is a tweet for all occasions.) No surprise. @DNC displayed Russian ships in tribute to vets http://t.co/Q6BpWj0I Did they mean to honor the Russians?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2012 Military-centric miscues on social media may occur relatively often, but seldom is the source of the mistake the military itself. On September 16, the U.S. Army’s official Twitter account tweeted a composite graphic featuring a soldier flanked by the words “I will never quit,” a line taken from the service’s Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos. The U.S. Army tweeted and deleted this graphic from its official account on September 16, 2020. It features a British soldier, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter (center), and several South African helicopters (background). The text of the tweet asked, “How do you live the #WarriorEthos?” Twitter users may have found the message more inspiring if the soldier, or any of the helicopters, actually belonged to the U.S. Army — or even the United States. Thanks to the blue patch on his right shoulder and the bullpup-style –– a distinct design in which the rifle’s magazine is located behind the trigger assembly –– SA80 assault rifle, Twitter users quickly identified the figure in the foreground as a British Army soldier. Noting the helicopters in the image, Darren Olivier, a South African military analyst and director of the African Defence Review, tweeted that that “the foremost helicopter is a USMC CH-33 and the helicopters in the background are all from a South African Air Force flypast featuring two Oryxes, two Rooivalks, three A109s, a BK-117 and a [South African Air Force Museum] Alouette III.” The Twitter account Angry Staff Officer, a semi-pseudonymous page operated by Maine National Guard officer Jonathan Bratten, tweeted, “A photo of a British soldier, a USMC helo, and some other foreign rotary winged aircraft? C’mon y’all, this isn’t that hard.” “Sometimes people make mistakes, and that is what happened in this case,” an Army spokesperson said in reference to the since-deleted tweet. Sgt. Maj. Mike Lavigne, sergeant major of Army Public Affairs, responded to the gaffe, saying, “Thank you for the dozens of DMs and tags. This is not the way the Army does business. 99% of our social media game is strong, but when it’s not, someone is held accountable and from today on, that’s me. See something wrong? I’m your POC.” Lavigne might be your POC for social media mishaps, but if you need articles that elicit a response of, “This isn’t news,” I’m your huckleberry.

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama…

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama City, while attempting to swim 2,000 yards. But, it said, the rules of the combat dive course stipulate that such 2,000-yard swims should be conducted with each swimmer paired up with and tethered to another swimmer of comparable ability to ensure a swimmer doesn’t get separated and into trouble. That was not done in this case. Baker had also taken two Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid, the night before the swim without medical authorization, in violation of Air Force instructions and the dive class policy. Its ingredients were still present in his blood at the time of his autopsy, the report said. Baker, 24, was a combat controller who enlisted in the Air Force in June 2018 and was assigned to the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in January 2020. He was originally from Longview, Washington, and received a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Washington University. He was on temporary duty to the Air Force Combat Dive School at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. The dive school, officially known as the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, Detachment 1, teaches students basic diving, advanced rescue diving principles and advanced combat diving fundamentals. Students at the dive school are required to finish a 2,000-yard surface swim — more than a mile — in simulated combat gear, to check each student’s swimming ability. Like his classmates, Baker wore a mask, a load-bearing vest with a pair of 2-pound weights to simulate ammunition magazines, a personal flotation device, a dive tool and a rubber AR-15. The swim in which Baker drowned took place on the fourth day of his class. Baker and his classmates took part in multiple physical activities, including a 1,000-yard surface swim while wearing gear, during the first three days. 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This surface swim was supposed to begin at 6 a.m. March 19, but a fog forecast prompted instructors to push it back three hours. Baker’s classmates said he appeared to be in good spirits, and they noticed nothing out of the ordinary, aside from mentioning soreness in his hip flexors the previous few weeks. During this swim, eight instructors and a safety diver took part — two more instructors than the minimum requirement. But there were a few changes from standard procedure, the report said. The ammunition pier that usually serves as the finish point was under construction, so the instructors instead used a floating barge about 100 yards east of the ammo pier to drop the buoy marker that served as the finish line. They also shifted the starting buoy marker 100 yards to the east of its usual location. There was also a privately owned, 65-foot yacht anchored in the swim path, the report said. An instructor checked to make sure there were no fishing lines coming from the yacht, and did not ask the yacht to move. There was also more boat traffic than usual during the swim, which the report said was attributed to the later than usual start of the swim, as well as people trying to get out on the water due to the coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. At one point, an instructor on a boat broke away from the group of student swimmers to stop two civilian boats from entering the training area. Another instructor on a boat also directed a fishing boat away from the swim lane, and later directed swimmers around the 65-foot yacht. The students began the swim at about 10:15 a.m. Almost immediately, the swimmers noticed the current was pushing them northwest, though it wasn’t strong enough to present a safety risk. The student who was closest to Baker said he seemed to be having no trouble swimming, but after about 100 yards, that student lost track of who was swimming near him. Another student swimmer followed Baker, who was the stronger swimmer, for a while without noticing anything wrong. Baker pulled away from that student around the time they approached the yacht, and the student lost sight of him. One by one, a little after 11 a.m., the students began to reach the finish point. The instructors first realized something was wrong when two students still had yet to report their times, but only one student could still be seen swimming. The instructors took head counts, but Baker was nowhere to be found. The instructors began looking for him, and soon called the dive school superintendent to report a student was missing and ask for search and rescue help. In all, 87 personnel on 18 boats, a police helicopter, and a C-130 — including five dive teams and assets from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Bay County Sheriff’s Office — searched for Baker for hours. A Fish and Wildlife Conservation boat ultimately detected something underwater on sonar at about 4:15 p.m. A diver soon found Baker’s body, which was then recovered. He was declared dead at 4:30 p.m. His dive gear was intact, the report said, and there was no sign he tried to activate his personal flotation device. There was also no sign of trauma or broken bones. The report concluded there was confusion among the dive school staff on the necessity of the buddy-pair system during 2,000-yard surface swims. The rules say buddy pairs should be used, and “buddy lines” are standard training equipment, the report said. But some instructors at the school felt swimming in pairs was inappropriate when they were supposed to be individually evaluating students. Two weeks before Baker’s death, the report said, several dive school instructors discussed using buddy pairs, and the “prevailing sentiment” was that they should be used for the 2,000-yard swim. Two days before the fatal swim, an instructor briefed the students on surface swims. The approved slide presentation listed buddy pairs and buddy lines, but the instructor told the students neither would be used for surface swims. This contradiction during the briefing contributed to instructors’ confusion, the report said. An instructor brought it up with the staff superintendent, who confirmed that buddy lines would not be used for surface swims and that they were to be individual assessments. The report said Baker was in good physical and mental health, though he was reported to use over-the-counter medication to help him sleep. He had some musculoskeletal problems common to special warfare airmen, the report said, but performed well at the fitness test and swims conducted earlier that week. “As a community, special warfare operators are driven, highly motivated individuals who strive to push themselves to the limits of their physical abilities,” the report said. Baker “was no exception, and fellow classmates classified him as one of the smartest and strongest in the class.” The report does not reach a firm conclusion as to what caused Baker to become incapacitated and drown, but lists several factors that may have contributed to it. Baker told an instructor that morning he had taken two Unisom capsules the night before the swim, and commented at breakfast that morning that he felt fatigued, the report said. His autopsy showed he had diphenhydramine levels in his blood of 54 nanograms per milliliter, the report said, more than the levels required to produce sedative effects. Diphenhydramine, or DPH, is the active ingredient found in Unisom. However, the report acknowledged that post-mortem changes can affect blood concentrations of substances between the time someone dies and the autopsy, and the blood measurements cannot reliably indicate the actual levels of DPH in his blood at the time of his death. Baker wore a full wetsuit during the swim for increased buoyancy, the report said. The wetsuit also would keep swimmers warm in cold conditions, but carried the risk of the swimmer becoming uncomfortably warm when swimming aggressively in warm weather. The weather and water conditions that day were mild, the report said, but an exertional heat injury could not be ruled out as a potential cause of his incapacitation. Exertional heat injuries typically happen when someone is strenuously exercising in a warm environment, the report said, as well as when loaded up with clothing, equipment and protective gear. The possibility of a heat injury can be increased by drugs and other substances that impair sweating, the report said. “Development of fatigue from exercise in the heat is multifactorial and associated with several physiologic processes, but the probability is amplified when combined with gear that both inhibits heat release and adds weight/drag, substances that can alter thermoregulation and psychomotor performance (antihistamine), and drive to perform at maximal effort,” the report said. Baker’s autopsy found no signs of head trauma, bone fractures or trauma to anything other than his lungs, which showed the effects of drowning. There was no evidence he had suffered a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolus, had a seizure, or vigorously struggled while drowning, the report said. The autopsy findings did not support a diagnosis of heatstroke, the report said, but heat could not be ruled out as a factor.

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