Marines knew infantryman shared extremist content online months before probe, records show
When Marine Corps leaders first found out a Camp Pendleton-based infantryman was claiming to be chairman of a nationalist organization and was sharing extremist material on social media, they counseled him to leave the group and remove some of his posts but kept him among their ranks and sent him on deployment, recently released documents show.
Six months later — one day after the San Diego Union-Tribune asked about the Marine, then-Lance Cpl. Thomas Cade Martin — the Corps launched a formal investigation, which determined his actions violated military rules against extremism, reduced him in rank, then separated him from the military, documents show.
Marine Corps regulations say it’s mandatory that any Marine found to be participating in extremist activities be processed for separation following the first substantiated case of misconduct. That process includes an administrative board hearing that can decide whether to remove him from the Marines.
Martin was the subject of a March 15, 2020, Union-Tribune report. Earlier this month, the newspaper obtained Martin’s investigation documents via the Freedom of Information Act. A large part of the report, 39 of 133 pages, was completely redacted.
A Marines spokeswoman said Martin’s case was handled appropriately by his chain of command when his actions came to their attention in August 2019 and again after the Union-Tribune’s inquiry in February 2020, which documents show is what kicked off the formal investigation.
But some say this case shows the military’s hard line on extremism is not absolute, that there is wiggle room in the policy for commanders to retain troops despite evidence of extremist activity — at least until their cases become public.
Much of the social media activity cited by the investigation that led to Martin’s separation was already published on his accounts when his activity first came to his chain of command’s attention during the summer of 2019, Martin said during an interview.
Martin, now out of the Marine Corps, said he thought at the time that the Marines had given him a second chance, which they revoked because of the Union-Tribune story.
“The military had already disciplined me,” Martin said. “If [the Union-Tribune] hadn’t reached out and jumped the chain of command, I probably would have just been NJP’d — I woulda been fine. If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably still be in the Marines.”
NJP stands for nonjudicial punishment, which can be meted out by a commanding officer. It often includes such punishments as loss of pay, restrictions and reduction in rank.
According to Pentagon regulations, military members are not allowed to advocate “supremacist, extremist .... doctrine, ideology, or causes .... or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.”
Martin’s posts on his social media accounts included materials that experts — and eventually the Marine Corps — said indicated white supremacist ideology.
Martin frequently wrote about protecting his lineage, for instance, and he “liked” a friend’s comment alluding to “the 14 words,” a notorious white-supremacist slogan about protecting the future for white children.
In one post he posed in uniform with a rifle, with the caption “dreaming about my future blue eyed blonde haired mistress.”
Those posts have since been removed. And there were other posts that Martin was ordered to erase long before the investigation began, Martin said.
Martin said he was a nationalist but not a white nationalist. He was listed as chairman of the U.S. Nationalist Initiative, a group that maintained a website and a Facebook page that had more than 1,400 followers last year. Experts who reviewed the group’s page last year said it displayed indicators of white-supremacist messaging.
The U.S. Nationalist Initiative’s website is no longer online, but an archived version is viewable on the Wayback Machine.
The Marine Corps investigation documents show Martin’s superiors were aware of his online activity as early as August 2019, more than a year before he was discharged.
That August, after Martin’s platoon and company commanders learned he was the chairman of a nationalist organization, they sought legal advice from a reserve staff judge advocate on how to proceed, the documents show, and they briefed the battalion commander.
On the advice of the reserve JAG officer, they ordered Martin to leave the nationalist group because “others could perceived [sic] the group as an extremist organization,” the investigation document says.
The names of the Marines and the JAG were redacted from the documents.
On Sept. 1, 2019, Martin’s platoon sergeant counseled Martin in writing about his social media pages that “display opinions and comments that have been received as racist, sexist, and not keeping with good order and discipline,” the document says.
In the comment section of the counseling form, Martin wrote, word for word, the “about” section of the U.S. Nationalist Initiative’s website, where the organization claimed not to discriminate based on race.
Even so, he was ordered to remove any questionable material from his social media, the investigation says.
On Sept. 9, Martin’s platoon sergeant gave him follow-up counseling. This time the sergeant wrote that Martin had removed the offending content from social media and tightened his privacy settings from public scrutiny, and there were “no concerns that any violation of the UCMJ [was] being committed,” the sergeant wrote, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The counseling form was signed by his platoon commander, whose name also was redacted.
A few months after Martin’s counseling, the Marines sent him on deployment with his battalion to the Pacific.
The formal investigation into Martin began on Feb. 29, 2020, after a Union-Tribune reporter sent to the Marines questions about, and links to, Martin’s accounts and screenshots of what he was sharing.
The investigation ended April 30 and received a final endorsement by the commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force on June 15. Martin received nonjudicial punishment and was reduced to private first class.
He was administratively separated in September.
Several of the posts cited as evidence against Martin were dated before August 2019. A photo illustration of Adolf Hitler at the Eiffel Tower cited in the investigation was shared publicly on Martin’s personal Instagram account on Oct. 21, 2018. A meme cited in the investigation from Patriot Front, which the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as a white nationalist hate group, was shared publicly on his personal Facebook page on Nov. 22, 2018.
Other exhibits cited in the investigation were shared on the U.S. Nationalist Initiative Facebook page from late 2018 through July 2019.
Martin said his leaders had not asked him to remove those posts; they had him remove others that came to their attention in August 2019.
Don King, a retired Navy captain who most recently served as a senior Navy appellate court judge, said the actions of the Marines when Martin’s activity first came to their attention raised questions about how his case was handled.
“If one part of an organization finds something not to be supremacist and another part of it finds that same information is — that raises questions,” King said. “Why the different conclusions?”
King said Martin’s commanding officer would have to have concluded the junior Marine’s actions met the Marine Corps’ definition of participation in supremacist activity to have him separated. But the wording of Martin’s paperwork leaves some room for interpretation, he said.
Martin’s 2019 counseling paperwork said Martin’s social media pages had “been received” as racist and sexist and that they “could” be detrimental to good order and discipline — wording that didn’t conclusively substantiate misconduct, King said.
When asked about Martin’s case, a spokeswoman for the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division defended the battalion leadership’s decision to counsel Martin instead of immediately processing him for administrative discharge.
Maj. Kendra Motz said in an email that Martin’s leaders acted appropriately when they discovered his social media posts in August 2019 and that he was eventually held accountable via nonjudicial punishment, which shows that disciplinary action did not stop at the platoon level.
“In this case, Thomas Martin’s leadership were made aware of and appropriately documented Martin’s unacceptable behavior in a timely manner,” Motz said. “Further, the leadership correctly directed the Marine to make immediate changes, to include removing himself from the group and deleting posts that were detrimental to good order and discipline. Additionally, when it learned of further violations in February 2020, the command initiated a detailed investigation.”
In his recent interview with the Union-Tribune, however, Martin said he thought he was in the clear after being written up in September 2019. He hadn’t expected further disciplinary measures — not until his social media accounts became news.
Motz did not answer questions about whether Martin’s counseling worksheet amounted to “substantiated misconduct” in 2019 — or whether his battalion commander appropriately followed Marine regulations about mandated separation processing after the first substantiated instance of extremist-related misconduct.
Motz also did not answer follow-up questions about the genesis of the formal investigation into Martin, which, the investigation says, began after a “Twitter dispute” and the emailed questions from the Union-Tribune.
“This case was investigated, adjudicated, and the Marine was separated from the Marine Corps,” Motz emailed in response to the Union-Tribune’s questions.
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