The commander of New Mexico’s National Guard is demanding an apology from the Army brass after dozens of his soldiers in a mostly Hispanic unit were ordered to strip to their gym shorts and searched for gang tattoos while on duty in Kuwait.
Army officials said the searches last May of 58 New Mexico National Guardsmen in a unit called Task Force Cobra were proper and legal.
But Brig. Gen. Kenny Montoya, head of the state National Guard, said he believes ethnicity played a role in the episode — the unit is 55 percent Hispanic.
“I said something wrong was done there, and it was because of race, and I want to make sure it will not happen again,” Montoya said.
The search, in which the soldiers were ordered to take off their shirts, shoes and socks and then were looked over for tattoos, was prompted by an unsubstantiated allegation from a soldier in another unit who complained about gang activity among soldiers in Kuwait.
At the time, several members of Task Force Cobra objected that the searches were racially motivated, and within days, Montoya asked his Army bosses to apologize. When that didn’t happen, Montoya wrote an apology and had that read and posted at their barracks.
Montoya, in a June 1 letter to Gen. Peter Schoomaker in the office of the Army chief of staff, said the unit “was racially targeted and illegally searched for body tattoos just because the unit consists of a large number of Hispanic-surnamed soldiers. An Army CID agent without any credible evidence, and armed only with information about an individual soldier from a different base and in a different unit, made a decision to target my unit.”
“All I asked was that someone with equal rank to me would go over to these great Americans and apologize — this still has not been accomplished.”
After the Albuquerque Journal reported the incident this week, New Mexico’s congressional delegation demanded that acting Army Secretary Pete Geren order a full investigation. Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation’s only Hispanic governor and a Democratic presidential hopeful, said he supports an investigation into the “degrading searches.”
The New Mexico chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens also expressed outrage.
“This is no way to treat our troops that are sacrificing their lives for the cost of our freedom. Racial profiling is reprehensible and should not be condoned,” said Paul A. Martinez, the group’s executive director.
The issue affected everyone in the unit, Hispanic or not, Montoya said. “They’re all brothers in arms. Most had come out of Iraq, where they were in immediate danger.”
The incident began after a Chicago Sun-Times article quoted Army Reserve Sgt. Jeffrey Stoleson of the 127th Infantry at Camp Navistar, Kuwait, about alleged gang activity among troops.
Stoleson, a corrections officer in civilian life, complained he was “tired of serving and putting his life on the line with gang bangers,” Montoya said. Later, the sergeant told Army Criminal Investigation Division agents that a soldier with a Hispanic surname, Morales, in the 127th Infantry and unnamed soldiers in the 111th Air Defense Artillery — to which the security force Cobra belongs — had gang tattoos.
On May 25, CID agent Paul McGuire ordered the Guard members at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, to checked for tattoos. The inspections quickly came to the attention of Montoya back in New Mexico. He telephoned up the chain of command; another round of searches set for the next day was stopped. When Montoya asked, he was told no other units were searched.
“The only tie with Morales was my guys were the only unit with 50 percent Hispanics,” the general said.
McGuire found no gang tattoos. A later investigation said Morales denied being a member of a gang and even explained the meaning of his tattoos.
The Army forbids extremist, racist, sexist or vulgar tattoos. Army regulations don’t specifically forbid gang membership, but do prohibit membership in any extremist organization.
Several members of the targeted unit were current or former police officers who would have picked up on any signs of gang activity, said Maj. Kenneth Nava, a spokesman for the New Mexico Guard.
Maj. Anne Edgecomb in the Army’s public affairs department in the Pentagon said in an e-mail Wednesday to The Associated Press that the Army had just received the congressional delegation’s letter calling for a full investigation and that no response had yet been sent.
“The U.S. Army, one of the most ethnically diverse organizations in our nation, provides equal opportunity to all our soldiers regardless of race, ethnicity or gender,” she said.
The Army’s inquiry to date has found the CID and officers of the 111th “approved and coordinated the plan” for searches. An attorney with the military’s Judge Advocate General said having soldiers remove their shirts to verify gang tattoos was legal.
Nava said that plans as described and plans as executed are not always the same.
The inquiry recommended discipline against three New Mexico soldiers who objected to the searches. Nava said those three were counseled, but there was no long-term discipline that would hurt their careers.