When Marine Corps leaders first found out a Camp Pendleton-based infantryman was claiming to be chairman of a nationalist organization and was sharing extremist material on social media, they counseled him to leave the group and remove some his posts but kept him among their ranks and sent him on deployment, recently released documents show.
Six months later — one day after the San Diego Union-Tribune asked about the Marine, then-Lance Cpl. Thomas Cade Martin — the Corps launched a formal investigation which determined his actions violated military rules against extremism, reduced him in rank, then separated him from the military, documents show.
Marine Corps regulations say it's mandatory that any Marine found to be participating in extremist activities be processed for separation following the first substantiated case of misconduct. That process includes an administrative board hearing that can decide whether or not to remove him from the Marines.
Martin was the subject of a March 15, 2020 Union-Tribune report. Earlier this month, the newspaper obtained Martin's investigation documents via the Freedom of Information Act. A large part of the report, 39 of 133 pages, was completely redacted.
A Marines spokeswoman said Martin's case was handled appropriately by his chain of command when his actions came to their attention in August 2019, and again after the Union-Tribune's inquiry in February 2020 which, documents show, is what kicked off the formal investigation.
But some say this case shows the military's hardline on extremism is not absolute, that there is wiggle room in the policy for commanders to retain troops despite evidence of extremist activity — at least until their cases become public.
Much of the social media activity cited by the investigation that led to Martin's separation was already published on his accounts when his activity first came to his chain of command's attention during the summer of 2019, Martin said during an interview.
Martin, now out of the Marine Corps, said he thought at the time that the Marines had given him a second chance, which they revoked because of the Union-Tribune story.
"The military had already disciplined me," Martin said. "If (the Union-Tribune) hadn't reached out and jumped the chain of command I probably would have just been NJP'd — I woulda been fine. If it wasn't for that, I'd probably still be in the Marines."
NJP stands for non-judicial punishment, which can be meted out by a commanding officer. It often includes such punishments as a loss of pay, restrictions and reduction in rank.
According to Pentagon regulations, military members are not allowed to advocate "supremacist, extremist .... doctrine, ideology, or causes .... or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights."
Martin's posts on his social media accounts included materials that experts — and eventually the Marine Corps — said indicate White supremacist ideology.
Martin frequently wrote about protecting his lineage, for instance, and he "liked" a friend's comment alluding to "the 14 words," a notorious White supremacist slogan about protecting the future for White children.
In one post he posed in uniform with a rifle, with the caption "dreaming about my future blue eyed blonde haired mistress."
Those posts have since been removed. And there were other posts that Martin was ordered to erase long before the investigation began, Martin said.
Martin said he is a nationalist but not a White nationalist. He was listed as chairman of The U.S. Nationalist Initiative, a group that maintained a website and a Facebook page that had more than 1,400 followers last year. Experts who reviewed the group's page last year said it displayed indicators of White supremacist messaging.
The U.S. Nationalist Initiative's website is no longer online but an archived version is viewable on the Wayback Machine.
The Marine Corps investigation documents show Martin's superiors were aware of his online activity as early as August 2019, more than a year before he was discharged.
That August, after Martin's platoon and company commanders learned he was the chairman of a nationalist organization, they sought legal advice from a reserve staff judge advocate on how to proceed, the documents show, and they briefed the battalion commander.
On the advice of the reserve JAG officer, they ordered Martin to leave the nationalist group because "others could perceived [sic] the group as an extremist organization," the investigation document says.
The names of the Marines and the JAG were redacted from the documents.
On Sept. 1, 2019, Martin's platoon sergeant counseled Martin in writing about his social media pages which "display opinions and comments that have been received as racist, sexist, and not keeping with good order and discipline," the document says.
In the comment section of the counseling form Martin wrote, word for word, the "about" section of the U.S. Nationalist Initiative's website, where the organization claimed not to discriminate based on race.
Even so, he was ordered to remove any questionable material from his social media, the investigation says.
On September 9, Martin's platoon sergeant gave him follow-up counseling. This time the sergeant wrote that Martin had removed the offending content from social media and tightened his privacy settings from public scrutiny, and there were "no concerns that any violation of the UCMJ (was) being committed," the sergeant wrote, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The counseling form was signed by his platoon commander, whose name also was redacted.
A few months after his counseling, the Marines sent Martin on deployment with his battalion to the Pacific.
The formal investigation into Martin began on Feb. 29, 2020, after a Union-Tribune reporter sent to the Marines questions and links to Martin's accounts and screenshots of what he was sharing.
The investigation ended on April 30 and received a final endorsement by the commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force on June 15. Martin received non-judicial punishment and was reduced to private first class.
He was administratively separated in September.
Several of the posts cited as evidence against Martin were dated before August 2019. A photo illustration of Adolph Hitler at the Eifel Tower cited in the investigation was shared publicly on Martin's personal Instagram account on Oct. 21, 2018. A Patriot Front meme cited in the investigation was shared publicly on his personal Facebook page on Nov. 22, 2018.
Other exhibits cited in the investigation were shared on the U.S. Nationalist Initiative Facebook page from late 2018 through July 2019.
Martin said his leaders had not asked him to remove those posts; they had him remove others that came to their attention in August 2019.
Don King, a retired Navy captain who most recently served as a senior Navy appellate court judge, said the actions of the Marines when Martin's activity first came to their attention raise questions about how his case was handled.
"If one part of an organization finds something not to be supremacist and another part of it finds that same information is — that raises questions," King said. "Why the different conclusions?"
King said Martin's commanding officer would have to conclude the junior Marine's actions met the Marine Corps' definition of participation in supremacist activity in order to have him separated. But the wording of Martin's paperwork leaves some room for interpretation, he said.
Martin's 2019 counseling paperwork said Martin's social media pages had "been received" as racist and sexist and that they "could" be detrimental to good order and discipline — wording that didn't conclusively substantiate misconduct, King said.
When asked about Martin's case, a spokeswoman for the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division defended the battalion leadership's decision to first counsel Martin instead of immediately processing him for administrative discharge.
Maj. Kendra Motz said in an email that Martin's leaders acted appropriately when they discovered his social media posts in August 2019 and that he was eventually held accountable via non-judicial punishment, which shows that disciplinary action did not stop at the platoon level.
"In this case, Thomas Martin's leadership were made aware of and appropriately documented Martin's unacceptable behavior in a timely manner," Motz said. "Further, the leadership correctly directed the Marine to make immediate changes, to include removing himself from the group and deleting posts that were detrimental to good order and discipline. Additionally, when it learned of further violations in February 2020, the command initiated a detailed investigation."
However, in his recent interview with the Union-Tribune, Martin said he thought he was in the clear after being written up in September 2019. He hadn't expected further disciplinary measures — not until his social media accounts became news.
Motz did not answer questions about whether the Martin's counseling worksheet amounted to "substantiated misconduct" in 2019 or whether his battalion commander appropriately followed Marine regulations about mandated separation processing after the first substantiated instance of extremist-related misconduct.
Motz also did not answer follow-up questions about the genesis of the formal investigation into Martin which, the investigation says, began after a "Twitter dispute" and the emailed questions from the Union-Tribune.
"This case was investigated, adjudicated, and the Marine was separated from the Marine Corps," Motz emailed in response to the Union-Tribune's questions.
Martin said other Marines in his unit were supportive of him after the first story about him was published in March 2020.
"They joked around and kind of made fun of me," he said. "A lot of people really didn't care. My peers were a huge support structure for me during that time."
Martin's case shows that front-line military leaders need to be prepared to address extremism in their ranks, said U.S Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego in an interview. She said extremism in the military is "a pervasive problem."
Jacobs sits on the House Armed Services Committee, where she also serves on the Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Addressing extremism in the military will be a main focus of the subcommittee, she said, because having extremists in uniform damages the vast majority of those who serve honorably.
"It's because of them we need to address this issue," Jacobs said. "It doesn't just affect national security, but it does damage to other members of the military to have extremists in their ranks."
A 2020 Military Times survey found more than one-third of all active-duty troops have seen signs of White nationalism in their ranks. More than one-half of minority troops saw the same.
In recent years several members of other extremist and White supremacist organizations have been booted from the military. And more recently, in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III has made addressing extremism in uniform a top priority. He ordered every unit across the department to pause and address the issue during a series of stand-downs over the next two months.
However, the process for addressing extremism and separating military members found in violation of the service's policy isn't always cut and dry. Despite Pentagon regulations against service members advocating extremist ideology, the Marines and other military branches have not been consistent about how they handle such cases.
In August 2019, a Marine reservist was reduced in rank but not discharged after sending a photo of Marines forming a swastika with their boots to Marine veteran and "Terminal Lance" cartoonist Maximilian Uriarte.
Three months later, in an unrelated case, an Air Force master sergeant was first demoted but not discharged after being outed as an active member of the defunct White nationalist group Identity Evropa. He was eventually discharged from the service over his hate group affiliation in August 2020 but, unlike the Marine Corps in Martin's case, the Air Force did not release his investigation report, the Air Force Times reported.
In another case, in 2019, two Marines were investigated at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar after sharing a video of the two of them in black charcoal pore-cleansing masks in uniform. One of the Marines says "blackface" and the other renders a salute. The first Marine then says "hello monkey."
The investigation into that incident, also obtained by the Union-Tribune via the Freedom of Information Act, found that while the two Marines violated social media policies, their actions did not meet the criteria for separation processing under the rules governing extremist behavior. The investigation notes that one of the Marines was already being processed for separation at the time. The investigation was heavily redacted and the reason for the Marine's separation was not disclosed.
Proposals are in the works to create laws addressing extremism in the military. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, proposed a measure to create a new section in military law explicitly making extremism a crime last year, but it was stripped from the final defense bill in December.
Recently Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, introduced a bill in the House called the Shielding Our Military from Extremists Act, that seeks to prevent extremists from joining the military. It does not address failures of the services to identify extremists already in uniform, however.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
This article is written by Andrew Dyer from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.