The Army is dealing with a growing problem of gang affiliations maintained by some of its recruits.

Evidence of gang culture and gang activity in the military is increasing so much an FBI report calls it “a threat to law enforcement and national security.” The signs are chilling: Marines in gang attire on Parris Island; paratroopers flashing gang hand signs at a nightclub near Ft. Bragg; infantrymen showing-off gang tattoos at Ft. Hood.

“It’s obvious that many of these people do not give up their gang affiliations,” said Hunter Glass, a retired police detective in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of Ft. Bragg and the 82nd Airborne. He monitors gang activity at the base and across the military.

“If we weren’t in the middle of fighting a war, yes, I think the military would have a lot more control over this issue,” Glass said. “But with a war going on, I think it’s very difficult to do.”

Gang activity clues are appearing in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. Gang graffiti is sprayed on blast walls – even on Humvees. Kilroy – the doodle made famous by U.S. soldiers in World War II – is here, but so is the star emblem of the Gangster Disciples.

My first encounter with gangs was in middle school. I was the only kid on my soccer team who wasn’t in the same gang as everyone else on the team. Even then, something was clear to me, that most people who become gang members don’t ever consider, or even have the opportunity, to leave. It’s not really an option. They know who your family is, where they live, what they look like and how to find them. If you had to choose between crossing people who know the intimate details of your life and family, and the government, who ideally would focus their efforts on you personally, who would you choose? That’s why folks maintain their ties even after they join the Army. Because in the Army, you can be discharged. Once a Crip, you are forever a Crip.

While street gangs are normally seen as a black or Latino issue, white supremacist hate groups have also infiltrated the military. While the CBS article notes that the Army screens for members of hate groups, a New York Times article from a year ago points to a Southern Poverty Law Center study concluding that there has been a large scale infiltration of the Army by white supremacist groups.

A decade after the Pentagon declared a zero-tolerance policy for racist hate groups, recruiting shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq have allowed “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists” to infiltrate the military, according to a watchdog organization.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and right-wing militia groups, estimated that the numbers could run into the thousands, citing interviews with Defense Department investigators and reports and postings on racist Web sites and magazines.

“We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad,” the group quoted a Defense Department investigator as saying in a report to be posted today on its Web site, www.splcenter.org. “That’s a problem.”

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The groups are being abetted, the report said, by pressure on recruiters, particularly for the Army, to meet quotas that are more difficult to reach because of the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq.

The report quotes Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator, saying, “Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces, and commanders don’t remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members.”

The Army knows that it should have been screening for gang affiliations and ties to hate groups. The problem is they are so desperate for recruits that they will take almost anyone. The Army has begun taking people with criminal records, sub-par academic scores, and even problems with obesity.

So the Army is accepting a growing number of new recruits with everything from health and weight issues to lower academic test scores to criminal records.

The number of incoming soldiers with prior felony arrests or convictions has more than tripled in the past five years. This year alone, the Army accepted an estimated 8,000 recruits with rap sheets, reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier.

Most are guilty of misdemeanors, but around 100 in the past year had felony convictions.

Everyone deserves a chance, and I have seen no evidence yet that accepting recruits with misdemeanor or felony convictions has had an adverse affect on the Army’s ability to fulfill its assignments. Those problems originate among the civilian leadership of the United States. But if you were an Iraqi, how would you feel about an occupying force enlisting convicted criminals to “protect” you?

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