Hanging Out With an Armed Militia at the Local Recruiting Post
The U.S. military isn’t thrilled about men with weapons showing up to its offices
Originally published on July 24, 2015.
A motley group of men wearing khaki and camouflage stood guard outside a U.S. Army recruiting office. They toted shotguns, pistols and assault rifles. Pizza boxes and takeout food bags piled up on a few chairs.
No, these guys weren’t soldiers … but an impromptu militia.
I traveled to Spanaway, Washington, and interviewed men who volunteered to guard a recruiting center — on their own — following attacks on a recruiting post and a Navy training center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On July 16, 2015, 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor before police officers fatally shot him.
Citizen guards have since popped up around the country … and have quickly become a source of controversy. Some observers hailed them as heroes. Others — including top military officials—have called them a security risk. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook released a statement requesting that “individuals not stand guard at recruiting offices as it could adversely impact our mission, and potentially create unintended security risks.”
At least one armed citizen in Ohio was arrested for accidentally firing his rifle outside a strip mall.
But outside this office, the scene was positively sedated. Spanaway is a small, military-friendly town adjacent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a combined Army and Air Force base and one of the largest military installations in America.
A young veteran named Bill said he arrived immediately after wrapping up a night shift at work. He carried a shotgun and a holstered pistol as he stood guard on July 22. As a veteran, the killings in Chattanooga hit him hard, he said.
“With the base here, this is a very military part of the state,” he said. “I know a lot of veterans and military family members who were just scared and heartbroken that something like this could happen at home.”
Several of the armed men in Spanaway said they preferred not to have their faces photographed or to give their last names. They insisted they were not looking for personal recognition or attention, but rather to show support for soldiers and veterans.
Most were former service members themselves.
The volunteers weren’t part of an organization, and many of them didn’t even know each other until they arrived outside the recruiting office. They came and went as work and other obligations came up.
“These guys put their lives on the line and gave Uncle Sam a blank check,” said Mike, a disabled veteran with a pistol tucked in the waistband of his shorts. “It’s a shame that they can’t protect themselves here.”
Mike served 10 years in the Air Force, and told me his daughter recently concluded a stint in the flying branch. He said he felt a sense of duty to help fellow service members — active duty and veterans alike. “If you have some free time, I can’t think of a better way to spend it,” he said.
Most of the volunteers admitted that an attack is unlikely, but they said that’s not the point. “We’re here mostly as a deterrent and to show moral support,” Mike said. “I certainly don’t expect a van full of jihadis to roll up.”
Most military personnel cannot carry weapons while on non-deployment duty unless engaged in training or specialized guard duty, according to official Pentagon policy. Recruiters do not typically carry weapons, and the Pentagon doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to let them.
“I think we need to take a look at it, but I have some concerns of second- and third-order effects of that,” Lt. Gen. Robert Neller told the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 23.
“I’m not going to discount it but I think in the end, it is the most extreme measure to do what we need to do, which is protect those Marines who are serving out there,” Neller added during his confirmation hearing to become the Marine Corps’ next commandant.
Fundamentally, the problem is that guns put an obstacle between the recruiter and a potential recruit. Firearms are intimidating — hence why armed guards serve as a deterrent.
If recruiters routinely carried guns, it would likely make their jobs harder, especially at high schools which prohibit guns. “They need to recruit — they need to stay connected to the American people, so whatever we do, we need to ensure that we can continue to go to schools [to recruit],” Neller added.
Bill said he didn’t expect a fight. “Since we are by one of the county’s largest military installations, it would be pretty idiotic [for jihadists] to try something.”
But he made clear that if something did happen, he was prepared to act.
Though the Spanaway volunteers I talked to eschewed getting too political or hamming it up for the cameras, this hasn’t been true elsewhere. In other states, citizen guards have openly flaunted their ties to right-wing militia groups and the sovereign citizen movement.
Many law enforcement professionals and terrorism experts consider these groups to be deadlier than jihadist groups. The day before the armed citizens appeared in front of the Spanaway recruiting office, the Army warned recruiting personnel to regard armed citizens as a security risk.
But if the soldiers here had read the warning, many seemed unfazed. Uniformed personnel came and went, and some of them exchanged pleasantries with the impromptu militia outside. The soldiers even brought a few chairs out of the office so the volunteers could sit.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department received calls from concerned citizens about the weapons when the volunteers first arrived on July 21, but the cops didn’t initially step in.
Washington is an open carry state — at that point everything the men had done was perfectly legal.
But police requested an 18-year-old man outside a recruiting center in Silverdale, Washington, to put away his weapons because he was scaring the locals. The man had a rifle and a shotgun and “was sitting in a beach chair and displaying an American flag,” according to the Kitsap Sun.
On July 23, police in Lancaster, Ohio, ordered an armed group to leave a recruiting center at a strip mall after 28-year-old Christopher Reed accidentally fired his AR-15 rifle. No one was hurt, but police seized Reed’s weapon and charged him with a misdemeanor. It was Reed’s second charge for the same offense — the first for an incident in 2013.
On July 17, a Navy recruiter came into work armed in Gainesville, Georgia, and accidentally shot himself in the leg.
But the armed men in Spanaway had their weapons slung or holstered — and nobody had their fingers anywhere near a trigger. Bill, the young veteran, had his hands clasped around the stock of his shotgun.
An intermittent stream of Spanaway residents — some of them veterans and military family members — stopped by the center to shake hands with the volunteers. Several others drove by in their cars and shouted thank-you’s.
Several passersbys brought food and drinks from neighboring restaurants. Pizzas, donuts and burgers piled up on the chairs. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with all this,” Mike remarked as he looked at the ever-growing stack of food.
As time passed, another pair of armed citizens came to join the group. A veteran named Leonard — who served 18 years in the Army — carried a PS90 semi-automatic weapon slung around his chest and a sidearm. “If I can protect my country in the Middle East, I can protect it here,” Leonard said.
He nearly walked into the recruiting office with his guns when Bill stopped him, reminding him that weapons aren’t allowed inside federal offices. Leonard returned to his truck, stowed his weapons and walked inside to briefly chat with the troops. After a few minutes, he came back out and retrieved his weapons.
Leonard wore a “peace by popular demand” t-shirt above a pair of chocolate-chip desert fatigues. When asked about the seeming contradiction, he replied, “It’s what all people want at the end of the day, isn’t it?”
A man driving a van pulled up. “I just heard about you guys on the radio,” he shouted. “You guys haven’t been getting any flack have you?” The group replied that they hadn’t. “Good,” the man responded. “You guys are doing a good thing.”
However, the next day, property owners grew wary of the growing group of armed men and called the Sheriff’s office. The police asked the citizen guards to pack it up.
“We contacted them and came to mutual agreement that today would be the last day,” Ed Troyer, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman told the Tacoma News Tribune. “We appreciate their energy and willingness to do what they did. Sends a strong message.”
Troyer said that any armed people unaware of the order would be asked to leave.