When Lloyd Austin was a lieutenant colonel in the 1990s, overseeing operations for the 82nd Airborne Division, a grisly double murder plunged the elite Army unit into crisis, anger and soul-searching over race and the military’s ability to detect threats in its own ranks.

In December 1995, young soldiers in the division, members of an underground band of neo-Nazi skinheads, shot and murdered two Black pedestrians in nearby Fayetteville, N.C.

The killings prompted a national outcry and an effort to root out extremism across the Army ranks. Austin, who became the nation’s first Black defense secretary this month, has been tasked with once again examining far-right sympathies in the U.S. military, after some of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol were found to be veterans or have military ties, and the military removed at least a dozen National Guardsmen from inauguration duty after background checks revealed extremism links among at least two.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that the Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe. (The Washington Post)

In his confirmation hearing, Austin signaled that the 1995 incident would shape his approach. “We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for,” Austin said. “But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to — but we learned from that.”

The fact that a 25-year-old incident finds echoes today also illustrates the persistence of racist ideology and the difficulty the military — and society — have in confronting it.

An examination of how the Army responded to those murders offers insight into what actions Austin may take to ensure that extremist sympathies, racist ideologies or conspiracy theories that threaten order and discipline don’t find safe haven in the ranks of the U.S. military.

“The vast, vast majority of men and women in the United States military serve with honor, and with character and integrity and dignity, and they don’t espouse these sorts of dangerous beliefs,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday. But, he said, even a small number is significant and may pose a problem.

A perennial problem

Austin is tackling the issue at a time of intense political division among Americans and deep skepticism about official information. He takes the Pentagon’s reins following a president who employed racist dog whistles and fueled conspiracy theories about the Nov. 3 election, jeopardizing President Biden’s perceived legitimacy as commander in chief.

One of the most difficult tasks facing the Pentagon after the riot at the Capitol is sorting out which groups and ideologies disqualify adherents from military service and how far an individual must go in acting on the group’s beliefs to face repercussions or dismissal.

It’s not clear, for example, what the Defense Department plans to do about personnel who follow QAnon, the extremist ideology based on the false claims of an unidentified online prophet called “Q,” whose followers believe former president Donald Trump is secretly waging a war against child-eating Satanist elites in Washington.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, said there also should be greater awareness in the military about anti-government groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, that cast themselves as militias. Individuals with links to those groups have been arrested and charged in the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6.

Extremism, Pitcavage said, “is a perennial problem and needs to be dealt with institutionally.”

The Pentagon must balance its push to root out extremism with service members’ right to privacy, free speech and individual beliefs. It also has to deal with uncertainty about which problematic behavior can be managed and which will give way to violent action.

During his confirmation hearing, Austin said the military needs to train leaders to know their subordinates personally and look for troubling signs.

“If leadership is not in touch with the people they are leading, these kinds of things can happen,” Austin said. “I don’t think that this is a thing you can put a Band-Aid on and fix and leave alone. I think that training needs to go on routinely because things change. The types of things that you’re looking for change.”

His remarks, 25 years after the 1995 skinhead murders rocked the Army, illustrate the ongoing challenge of addressing an evolving threat. The events at Fort Bragg, named after a Confederate general, raised questions about how such an abhorrent crime could emanate from within one of the Army’s most hallowed units — and why those overseeing the perpetrators failed to report clear signs of trouble.

George Reed, who commanded the Army criminal investigation unit at Fort Bragg shortly after the incident, said some commanders had detected neo-Nazi ideology on the base before the incident but, as was common across the Army, they had hoped that military culture and values would ultimately counteract toxic ideas.

“It was tolerated because we tolerate all sorts of different belief systems, as long as you don’t misbehave and as long as you perform,” Reed said.

At the center of the episode were two White paratroopers, Pvts. James Burmeister II and Malcolm Wright. On Dec. 7, 1995, the soldiers had been drinking off-base and accosted Michael James and Jackie Burden, as the Black civilians walked down the street in Fayetteville. Burmeister then shot the pair at close range, execution-style. According to prosecutors, he wanted a spiderweb tattoo as a neo-Nazi award for the killing.

The two paratroopers were charged with murder. A third soldier, Spec. Randy Lee Meadows Jr., who drove the car that night, was charged with conspiracy.

In the weeks following the slayings, the military identified at least 22 members of the 82nd with extremist links, including those involved in the murders, though some were “anti-racist” skinheads. Nine were subject to discharge.

All three soldiers involved in the murder were later found guilty, though Meadows received a reduced sentence for testifying against the other two.

“The basic question that we started hearing repeatedly from soldiers was how could something like this happen in the Army,” Rivers Johnson Jr., the 82nd’s public affairs officer at the time of the murder, wrote after the fact.

There were, however, clear warnings that racially motivated violence was likely to occur.

During the investigation into the murders, officials discovered that an off-base shooting earlier that year had involved members of rival skinhead clans within the Army.

Burmeister had used racial slurs, worn a Nazi medallion and displayed a swastika in his barracks room before the attack, Johnson wrote. While he had been reprimanded because of his views and was stripped of his security clearance after a fight with a Black service member, officials said other soldiers did not report the full extent of his behavior.

Johnson said one contributing factor to the permissive environment may have been 1990s changes to housing rules that meant many barracks for enlisted service members no longer had senior noncommissioned officers living there. New Army privacy rules also had restricted leaders from entering soldiers’ personal quarters.

The incident led to self-reflection among base leaders.

“I can tell you that most of us were embarrassed that we didn’t know what to look for, and we didn’t really understand that being engaged more with your people on these types of issues can pay big dividends,” Austin said during his hearing. He said the 82nd “has probably learned that forever,” but added, “You can never take your hand off the steering wheel.”

Jack Keane, who took over as Fort Bragg’s commanding general the month after the murders, said he addressed weak leadership in the chain of command above the perpetrators, and noted that soldiers who knew about the neo-Nazi beliefs of the murderers hadn’t felt compelled to report them.

“We conducted training in the entire chain of command to make certain that would not occur again,” Keane said.

He said “chain teaching,” whereby each leader teaches his immediate subordinates, who then teach their subordinates, all the way down the chain of command, underscored “that they have an absolute obligation to take action against any speech or signs or symbols” suggesting white supremacy.

For that to happen, Keane said, the leaders needed to be armed with information, so they understood what to look for — spiderweb tattoos, for instance — and also needed to understand they shouldn’t dismiss such signs or beliefs as none of the Army’s business.

Keane also invited the NAACP onto the base to survey the situation. After the incident, the division began extremism training and tattoo inspections.

There was also an enforceable regulatory policy on equal opportunity that allowed the Army to counsel soldiers with possible extremist views and ensure they agreed to the policy, according to Robert McFetridge, who was the legal counsel for the 82nd Airborne at the time. Failure to agree would affect their promotion or retention within the service, he said.

The Army secretary at the time also directed a worldwide study about extremism in the ranks. While the study found that extremist groups by and large were not actively recruiting soldiers, it recommended closer screening and better training.

More than two decades later, experts say the military’s procedures for identifying far-right tattoos and educating troops about extremist threats must be updated.

Keane said leaders must inform themselves about what groups pose a threat.

“If I was sitting there as a four-star right now, I would not be conversant with the ideology and belief systems of all these organizations that were out there,” he said. “It is going to have to start there.”

He said an assessment can be made relatively quickly, as the Army did with skinheads in the 1990s, of the problem’s scope, and then the force can “throw education at it” to show commanders what to look for and instill an obligation to report.

Austin, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1975, would have seen over the course of his career how the Army transitioned from being an organization plagued by institutional racism to one that for years has sought to be rooted in merit, Keane said. Austin also witnessed the response to the 1995 murders at Fort Bragg as a midcareer officer. Those experiences, Keane said, will equip him as he deals with the matter.

Keane said, “It’s kind of like the right man for the right time.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the military removed at least a dozen National Guardsmen from inauguration duty over concerns about their ties to extremism. At least a dozen were removed, but not all because of extremism suspicions.