MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- T.J. Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, member of Hammerskin Nation, and former Leatherneck, presented a unique story to Combat Center Marines, sailors and civilians at the base theater Sept. 26.
Through his unique perspective, Leyden shared with and put all attendees in the same mindset of his early-life experience: hate, crime, violence and reform.
His story began in 1978, when his parents divorced. He associated himself with a crowd that used radical tactics to portray their feelings, whether it was at a punk rock concert, at a party, or on the street. The tensions he and his peers had with other people were solved with physical and brutal remedies. His extreme life of violence was in the embryonic state as a teenager and sprouted to radical beliefs involving tremendous hate against others who were not like him and his pals.
He became a member of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement, and then a member of the Hammerskin Nation, the world’s largest skinhead gang. As a leading recruiter, organizer and propagandist for the white supremacist and neo-Nazi movement, Leyden spent 15 years promoting hate, segregation and racism.
During this time, Leyden had many clashes with the law, causing him to join the Marine Corps in January 1988.
Leyden’s life as a Marine slightly affected his immoral antics and views he had before. His racist beliefs, however, remained the same. He separated himself from those who opposed his lifestyle and continued his efforts in recruiting while he was in the fleet.
During his second year in the Marine Corps, he tattooed Nazi "SS" bolts on his neck, symbolizing the Waffen-SS, or the combat arm of the Schutzstaffel, a criminal military organization involved with the National Socialist Party during World War II. Leyden was discharged from the Corps under other than honorable conditions due to fighting, a drinking problem and his corrupt attitude. Yet, his service record never reflected his ongoing involvement with hate groups.
After many life-changing events and a profound change of heart, Leyden left the white supremacy movement three years after he was married. His two oldest sons, who were 11 months and 3 years old at the time, were his motivation to take a new path, he said.
Leyden then worked for six and a half years with “Task Force Against Hate” at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an international pro-Zionist Jewish organization that declares itself to be a human rights group dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust by fostering tolerance and understanding through community involvement, educational outreach and social action, according to their Web site.
Since then, Leyden has trained workers at the Pentagon, FBI, U.S. military, law enforcement, educators and over 800,000 students. He has also been a featured guest on over 50 syndicated talk shows around the world.
In early 2002, Leyden and his second wife founded their own organization, StrHate Talk Consulting. It is an organization that works with high schools, colleges, military installations, law enforcement departments and prosecutors’ offices.
His mission is as follows:
"I want to combat hate, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination through education," said Leyden. "As you may be aware, one of the most challenging messages to give people today is the message of tolerance and racial understanding in America."
Leyden guided the attendees at the base theater through the journey he and many others have taken. He has been telling his story for 10 years.
"His story was powerful," said Pfc. Gabriel Marrero, a light armored vehicle crewman with Company C, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. "It struck me because I didn’t think racism was still that bad in some people. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, so I never saw any skinheads. But, it shocked me to see how he acted and how they [hate groups] handled their business."
The importance of bringing Leyden to the Combat Center was to alert service members and civilians that there are extremists trying to recruit, said Gunnery Sgt. Herrick A. Ross, the Combat Center’s equal opportunity advisor.
"Apparently, there are extremist in the High-Desert area trying to recruit," said Ross. "Some of them are even in the Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree area. This presentation was meant to inform all people who attended that getting to know who the people are around you, spotting the extremist and mentoring those who need it can deactivate their recruiting efforts."
During Leyden’s time in the Corps, he noticed that some extremists were in the military to get the training needed to become killers. Having a proactive mindset and being on the alert is crucial, he said.
Nonetheless, bringing awareness to installations is just as important as bringing awareness to any individual, even if it is one at-a-time, he added.
"I’ll go anywhere I am invited to speak at because I know most people do not have a clue to what kind of racial hate actions are happening these days," said Leyden. "If I can educate one person to stay away or resist it, I’ve done my job.
"One person can make a change," he continued. "One person can spread the word to many. Out of those he tells, some will spread the word to many more. So many people can change if they just become aware of the negativity racial extremists are all about."
At the end of the presentation, Leyden tasked all attendees with a mission; to become an active anti-racist.
"Please help this world stop making people like me," addressed Leyden. "Find that kid who has nothing to lose and mentor him. A kid with nothing to lose is a perfect recruit for the movement. Help them. Befriend them. Do what you can. Get them out if they’re in. That wrong path will lead to a life of hatred, unhappiness, imprisonment or death. They can destroy lives or they can die.
"For people in the movement [in the military]; look at the people who got your back," he added. "They’re black, white, Hispanic and Asian. They will look out for your life because they expect the same. They will defend you. When you’re on the battlefield, you all bleed the same color."
Leyden’s impact on the Marines, sailors and civilians who attended will stick with them forever, he said.
"When you teach someone a lesson using fists, they will heal," said Leyden. "But words stick to you forever."
His mission was accomplished at the Combat Center. All became aware of who to look out for and what to do to help. It filled him with pride knowing that he paid what he owed the Marine Corps, said Leyden.