An element of Army Special Operations Command has distanced itself from a unit logo that has been adopted by a domestic extremist group.
Just last week, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School advised all of its personnel to avoid using more than a dozen symbols linked by law enforcement to extremist activity.
One, featuring a Roman numeral "III" surrounded by a circle of stars, is now the symbol of the Three Percenters, a "militia movement/paramilitary group with members who adhere to a far-right/libertarian ideology with a primary focus on firearms ownership right and opposition to expansive U.S. federal government authority," according to a JFK SWCS slide briefing.
The image had been part of the long-time unofficial symbol of Trauma 3, an 18-month, special operations medical course focused on tactical combat casualty care.
"Certain aspects of that logo have a striking resemblance to the symbology of an extremist organization -- specifically the Roman numeral three with the Betsy Ross star circle, which was used by Trauma 3," Col. Matt Gomlack, chief of staff at the JFK SWCS, told Military.com.
Trauma 3 had used the symbol "way longer" than the Three Percenters, which was formed in 2008, Gomlack said, describing how its military use goes back to the 1990s. The Trauma 3 shirt with the logo, which has drawn most of the attention, was created in 2016 and changed in 2020.
Concerns over domestic extremism exploded after rioters in Washington, D.C., breached the U.S. Capitol building, resulting in more than 25,000 National Guard members being ordered to the city to beef up security for the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden.
On Feb. 3, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III ordered commanders across the services to take time over the next two months to discuss the problem of extremist ideology in the ranks with all formations.
But Gomlack said unit leaders started addressing the issue before Austin's directive. In fact, Trauma 3 decided to remove the III and the circle of stars from its logo in August, when a student identified it as the symbol of the Three Percenters.
"A member of Trauma 3, one of the students, said, 'Hey, do you guys know that this symbol looks a lot like the symbol of the Three Percenters? And they were like, 'Who the hell are the Three Percenters?'" he said.
Trauma 3's logo -- which features a skull that combines a paddle for the Marine Forces Special Operations Command, a trident for the Navy SEALs and an arrow for Army Special Forces -- no longer features the III and the circle of stars on the skull.
"It was actually organically detected, and we took steps to change it then," Gomlack said.
The unit also sold T-shirts over the years featuring an American flag with the III surrounded by the circle of stars in a blue field, he added. "But of course those shirts that we sold five years prior in a blissful state of ignorance of our symbology that parallels this extremist group -- they are still out there."
The Jan. 6 Capitol breach "really brought to the national attention this issue of extremism and, frankly, it brought issues of the symbology that these extremist organizations use," Gomlack said.
"We really started to have concerns about the perception of linking our symbology with the symbology of extremist organizations, so to protect the members of our command, we said we need to understand what symbology is out there that is affiliated with extremism," he explained. "We are still in the process of developing a comprehensive policy that will put in the right levers of checks and reviews, so that we can avoid producing a T-shirt or a unit logo or a course logo or something that somebody could mistakenly attribute to an extremist organization."
The command has also briefed all of its personnel on a list of 14 symbols that have been linked to extremist groups by the New York Police Department's Intelligence Bureau. The symbols range from the Nazi swastika to the Oath Keepers' symbol, which bears the far-right militia group's name on a gold and black tab resembling that of the Army Rangers.
The command released a statement late Friday to all of its personnel stating that the future wear or posting of "any of these symbols" could result in "military punishment."
"The command is doing two things: We are protecting our formation from potential misperceptions ... and two, we are also sending a message that extremism is not tolerated in the Department of Defense and certainly not in our organization." Gomlack said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify when the Trauma III logo shirt was created.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.