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When you think of a gang member, what comes to mind? Is it a tattooed young man, throwing up gang signs and flashing big wads of cash? Or a violent ex-con involved in drugs? Whatever mental image the term evokes, it’s probably not that of a clean-cut US soldier. However, one professor at Middle Tennessee State University says gang members are most definitely serving in the military.

Dr. Carter Smith has studied gangs in the military for years, after first discovering the problem as a criminal investigator in the Army. While one independent study shows less than one-percent of service members are in gangs, Smith says that is still far too many. “If there’s a million and a half people in the military, less than one-percent is how many? Fifteen-thousand. Are you okay with 15,000 people trained to kill, maim?” he asks.

Smith believes most gang members join the military to get away from the gang, then find it difficult to break away. He fears what might happen when military training, weapons and equipment are combined with a gang creed.  Drug running, intimidation, violence – Smith says all are possibilities.

More thorough background checks might help weed out gang members. In most cases, though, Smith says the military only checks for convictions, and at times, even those with felony arrests have been allowed to join.