February 9, 1996
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EST
From Correspondent David Lewis
FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina (CNN) -- The 82nd Airborne -- the "All American" Division -- is one of the Army's proudest. Its history is rich. From the Battle of the Bulge to the Tet Offensive, from Panama to Saudi Arabia, the 82nd has fought in some of the United States' fiercest battles with distinction.
Now the 82nd is waging another war -- one of its toughest -- with itself. In the wake of two alleged racist murders last December, the Army is cleaning house.
This internal struggle for the soul of the Division began in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town next door to the 82nd's Fort Bragg headquarters. According to the police, three young soldiers from the 82nd -- James Burmeister, Malcolm Wright and Randy Meadows -- stayed up late drinking, talking, and plotting.
Just after midnight the three set out, the police say, to harass some black people. The result? Minutes later Michael James and Jackie Burden were gunned down as they walked down the street. The motive for the crime, law enforcement officials say, was hate.
Burmeister and Wright were racist, neo-Nazi skinheads. Burmeister was charged as the gunman, Wright was also charged with murder, Meadows with conspiracy.
Police searched the trailer where Burmeister and Wright were arrested.
"We found a lot of literature referencing white supremacy, the Third Reich," said Sgt. Steve McIntosh of the Fayetteville Police Department. "There was a Nazi flag hanging on the wall there, and some other brochures."
The soldiers in the regiment couldn't believe what they heard, and their officers were outraged to discover the extreme beliefs that had been lurking in their ranks.
"I did not have any idea that such things were happening within the battalion," said Sgt. Billy Lynn.
"They were what we call dirtbags," said Sgt. Dennis Carey.
"No one ... that I know of was really aware of how severe these soldiers had gotten into it," added Capt. Scott Wilson. "Bottom line: There's no place for it in the Army, no place for it in my company, in the 82nd. Never has been, never will.
Extremist skinheads are the stormtroopers for the old hate movements. Hate crime monitors say skinheads have been responsible for 31 murders nationwide over the last five years.
Now the Army is investigating how serious a problem it has with extremists like racist skinheads.
The Army has been training, teaching and counseling soldiers about the problem, telling them what's allowed and what's out of line.
"Bottom line is that extremist activity will not be tolerated... this is what to look for, this is what to do, this is how to report it," said Maj. Rivers Johnson. (85K AIFF sound or 85K WAV sound)
The Army has cracked down. It has identified fewer than a dozen skinheads with neo-Nazi, racist beliefs. All face severe discipline, including the possibility of being booted out of the Army or even court-martialled.
"If we have identified someone as being an active member of an extremist organization, then our Army regulations require commanders to take positive actions," said Lt. Col. Robert McFetridge.
But some soldiers say the Army has gone too far. CNN talked to four skinheads in the 82nd Airborne. All wanted their identities kept confidential because of pressure from the Army.
"It seems like a witch hunt," said one.
"The reason we're under investigation is we've been identified as skinheads," said another. "And in the Army's eyes, skinheads are all bad, vicious, racist killers." (68K AIFF sound or 68K WAV sound)
These skinheads said they were non-racist skinheads, and opposed white supremacy and neo-Nazi attitudes . One was even a minority himself.
"I've been accused of being racist and it's kinda funny..." he said. "I'm a minority and for me to be white power I wouldn't even know what my cultural background is or I'd be just stupid and crazy."
On the surface it's not easy to tell a racist from a non- racist skinhead. The hair is the same, the clothes are much the same. The differences are subtle things like tattoos or shoelaces, patches on a jacket or taste in music.
Beneath these details of style there are indeed striking differences in philosophy -- differences the Army should be able to figure out. But these soldiers say the Army hasn't even tried.
"They just plain and simply told me: A skinhead is a skinhead is a skinhead," said one. "I was appalled."
"They're just trying to hunt down anyone with a shaved head," another complained. "And it's just not right."
The Army denies it has been unfair.
"This is not a witch hunt," said Johnson. "If soldiers do not feel they have received a fair shake then there are a host of agencies and opportunities available for them to put in their complaints.
But these soldiers feel that it will be practically impossible for them to recover from the attention being focused on them. And they don't think it's fair.
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