Being in a street gang is now forbidden for members of the U.S. armed forces. But you might not guess that if you were to visit U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to soldiers who have recently served there.
Jeffrey Stoleson, a Wisconsin corrections official, returned from Iraq in January with photos of gang graffiti on armored vehicles, latrines and buildings. Stoleson, a sergeant with a National Guard unit, was there for nine months to help the Army set up a prison facility outside Baghdad.
"I saw Maniac Latin Disciples graffiti out of Chicago," Stoleson said, adding that there was a lot of graffiti for Texas and California gangs, as well as Mexican drug cartels.
A Chicago Police officer -- who retired from the regular Army and was recently on a tour of Afghanistan in the Army Reserve -- said Bagram Air Base was covered with Chicago gang graffiti, everything from the Gangster Disciples' pitchfork to the Latin Kings' crown.
"It seems bigger now," said the officer, who previously served a tour in Iraq, where he also saw gang graffiti.
Now back in Chicago, the officer said he has arrested high-level gang members who have served in the military and kept the "Infantryman's bible" -- called the FM 7-8 -- in their homes. The book describes how to run for cover, fire a weapon tactically and do the "three- to five-second rushes" seen in war movies.
"It's scary," he said.
In 2006, Stoleson saw similar graffiti in Iraq during another tour of duty there. That year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on gangs in the military -- and published several of Stoleson's photos of gang graffiti.
Congress eventually banned members of the military from belonging to street gangs. And last November, the Defense Department added the ban to its rules.
Spokesmen for the Army and Defense Department said they could not provide figures on how many soldiers have been thrown out of the military or otherwise disciplined as a result of gang membership.
Stoleson, who stressed he was not speaking for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections or the Army, said it appears the problem is worse than ever. He warned that soldiers who return to gang life back home are especially dangerous because they know military tactics that they can use against the police and the public -- as a Marine did in 2005 when he killed a police officer and wounded three others in a California ambush.
"Gang members are coming home now with one or two tours," he said. "Some were on the field of battle."
Civilian contractors in Iraq are part of the gang problem overseas, Stoleson said. He said he was involved in destroying a large quantity of drugs confiscated from U.S. contractors in Iraq.
Stoleson, who is a member of the International Latino Gang Investigators Association, said some police departments in California are now tracking whether gang members were in the military.
A second Chicago Police officer, who searches homes for drugs and guns, said gang members targeted by his team are sometimes current or former members of the armed forces. That becomes part of the team's pre-raid briefings because the suspect is an increased safety risk with military training, the officer said.
"We recently arrested a guy in the reserves for crack [cocaine]," the officer said. "He was a gang-banger."
Stoleson said that, on his previous tour in Iraq, he was friends with a soldier who associated with the Maniac Latin Disciples when he grew up in Chicago.
"We talked a lot about it. He said the military was the only way he could break free," Stoleson said.
But those aren't the people Stoleson worries about.
"My problem is the guys who go into the military to continue the lifestyle," he said.
T.J. Leyden, a former white supremacist, was one of those guys. He said he recruited fellow members of the Hammerskin Nation into the Marines when he was in the corps in the late 1980s and early 1990s and sent stolen Kevlar body armor and helmets to fellow skinheads back home.
"I wore white supremacist T-shirts, and I hung a swastika flag out of my barracks," said Leyden, who was kicked out of the Marines for drinking and fighting. "I hated America. The only reason I was a Marine was because they were the baddest of the bad."
Leyden, who lives in Utah now, said he quit the white-supremacy movement in 1996 because he was worried "my sons were becoming me."
He began working against the movement and founded Straight Talk Consulting, giving lectures to students and advising the FBI, the National Guard and other organizations about gangs in the military.
Leyden said his informants have told him that skinheads and street gangs are still entrenched in both the regular military and the National Guard.
"The military needs to wake up," he said..