Of the harrowing images televised nationwide from Saturday’s white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, one of the more chilling sights, amid hours of raging hatred and mayhem, was of camo-clad militiamen on the streets, girded for combat in tactical vests and toting military-style semiautomatic rifles.

Photos and video of the heavily armed cadre — a relatively small force commanded by a 45-year-old machinist and long-ago Navy veteran from western Pennsylvania — spread rapidly on social media, raising fears the clash of hundreds of neo-Nazis and counterprotesters might end in a bloodbath.

The show of strength was about “allegiance . . . to the Constitution,” particularly the First Amendment, said Christian Yingling, leader of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia. He said he and his troops “convoyed in” to Charlottesville early Saturday to defend free speech by maintaining civic order so everyone present could voice an opinion, regardless of their views.

The fact that no shots were fired, Yingling said, was a testament “to the discipline of the 32 brave souls serving under me during this particular operation.” In a telephone interview Sunday, he sought to dispel “the absurd idea in the public’s mind” that his group of “patriots” was allied with or sympathetic to the white nationalists.

Many militia units in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast have “mutual defense agreements,” Yingling said. Because he has overseen several militia responses at contentious gatherings in recent months — helping “keep the peace” at right-wing public events in Boston; in Gettysburg and Harrisburg, Pa.; and at an April 29 rally in Harrisburg for President Trump — Yingling said the commander of a Virginia militia asked him to organize and take “tactical command” of the Charlottesville operation.

White nationalists were met by counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. A car plowed into crowds, killing one person and injuring 19 others. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

“He had never handled anything like this,” Yingling said. “And given the volatility of the event, it was not a good place to start.”

When his group arrived in Charlottesville, “we put our own beliefs off to the side,” Yingling said. “Not one of my people said a word. They were given specific orders to remain quiet the entire time we were there. . . . Our mission was to help people exercise their First Amendment rights without being physically assaulted.”

He added: “It was a resounding success until we were just so drastically outnumbered that we couldn’t stop the craziness. It was nothing short of horrifying.”

In the interview and in a Facebook Live monologue Sunday, Yingling detailed why the militia members participated, how he went about organizing their appearance, and how his group was received — which he said was not with much welcome.

“Jacka---s,” was how he described both sides, meaning the white nationalists, who billed the gathering as Unite the Right, and the counterprotesters, many marching under the banner of Antifa, for “anti-fascist.” Yingling also criticized police, saying that officers were poorly prepared for the violence and not assertive enough in combating it and that they should have enlisted the militiamen to help prevent the mayhem.

Instead, about five hours after Yingling and his platoon arrived at 7:30 a.m., they were ordered by police to leave the area, he said. By 1:42 p.m. — when a man reputed to be a neo-Nazi adherent allegedly drove his car intentionally through a crowded pedestrian mall and into a sedan, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others — the militiamen were far from Charlottesville, headed back to their encampment 50 miles northeast of the city, Yingling said.

He said several of his troops were battered and bloodied, having been attacked by people on both sides of the demonstration, yet they did not retaliate.

He said he does not know the suspect in the car killing, James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio, or any of the white nationalists involved in Saturday’s demonstration.

Virginia’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, rejected the assertion that police were ill-equipped to handle Saturday’s unrest. “To say we were unprepared or inexperienced is absolutely wrong,” Moran declared Sunday, adding, “We unequivocally acted at the right time and with the appropriate response.”

He said: "The fighting in the street was sporadic. But soon after it started, we began to have conversations about when to go in. The concern was that the fighting was in the middle of the crowd and that if we went in there, we would lose formation, lose contact. We would be putting the public and law enforcement in jeopardy."

Saturday marked the first time in 28 years the Virginia National Guard was used to help quell a civil disturbance. “The militia showed up with long rifles, and we were concerned about that in the mix,” Moran said. “They seemed like they weren’t there to cause trouble, but it was a concern to have rifles of that kind in that environment.”

Authorities also were worried that Yingling — who was carrying a Sig Sauer AR-556 semiautomatic weapon — and his troops would be mistaken for National Guard members by the public, Moran said.

Yingling called the weapons “one hell of a visual deterrent” to would-be attackers from either side. Although the weapons’ magazines were fully loaded, he said, the day’s standard procedure “was that anyone who was carrying a long gun was not to have a round in the chamber. Now, our sidearms are generally chambered and ready to go.”

The Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia is one of several Light Foot Militia outfits in states nationwide. In addition to having overall command of units in Pennsylvania, Yingling said, he is the leader of his home unit, the Light Foot Militia Laurel Highlands Ghost Company, based near his home in New Derry, Pa., about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. The Ghost Company has about a dozen members, he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors extremist organizations, classifies 276 militias in the country as “antigovernment groups,” meaning they generally “define themselves as opposed to the ‘New World Order,’ engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines.”

The Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia is on the list, as are Light Foot Militia units in South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. But the SPLC points out that inclusion on its list "does not imply that the groups themselves advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activity, or are racist."

Yingling said he abhors racism and that his company, which usually trains in the woods once or twice a month, is open to prospective members “of all races and creeds,” although its active roster is entirely white.

A Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Yingling said he was an aviation machinist’s mate for three years before leaving the service in 1993 as a petty officer third class, meaning he was four rungs up the enlisted ranks.

“I joined the military to avoid the addictive lifestyle of my parents,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I was raised in a VERY dysfunctional, abusive home. The military gave me the structure I needed.” After his discharge, however, “I quickly fell right into the lifestyle I had known all my life with my parents. I quit going to church, I started using drugs and alcohol, heavily becoming addicted to both. It started a . . . downward spiral which led to an eventual suicide attempt.”

Then, in 2008, President Barack Obama was elected. Yingling said he was drawn then to right-wing, anti-government extremism.

"I left my old addictive lifestyle behind and traded it for the lifestyle of a patriot," he wrote. "I had found my calling" as a militiaman. "I founded The Westmoreland County Militia, Regulators 1st Battalion with two fellow patriots." He later left the unit and formed the Laurel Highlands Ghost Company.

“No, I don’t think the government, as a whole, is out to get us,” he said in the interview, but “a lot of people in society are self-absorbed. They don’t get involved with the Constitution and defending the freedoms that it gives us. We need to defend those freedoms — for everyone, on all sides of the political debate — or eventually we’ll lose them.”

About a month ago, when he learned the Unite the Right event was being planned, Yingling said, “I, like most militia commanders, did not want to touch it with a 10-foot pole” for fear of being wrongly perceived as an ally of white supremacists. But after talking it over with a fellow Light Foot commander, in Upstate New York, he decided he had a duty to defend the right of free speech on the streets of Charlottesville.

Through Facebook and various militia chat rooms, he said, he recruited militia members from various East Coast units and organized a rendezvous Friday night at a farm in Unionville, Va. He said he was angered and embarrassed that only 32 people showed up. Many others, he said, were afraid of being publicly branded as racists.

“We knew what we were walking into,” he said on Facebook Live. “We knew what the results were going to be. And yet we walked in anyway. We weren’t afraid. And we didn’t give a good damn about our image or about what anybody thought about us. And I still don’t.”

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