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Nazi or not? Tattoo sparks Twitter storm over wounded Pasco veteran

Justin Gaertner of New Port Richey, who lost his legs to an explosion in Afghanistan, trained as a forensic analyst to fight online pedophiles through the Department of Homeland Security. [CHRIS URSO   |   Staff (2015)]
Justin Gaertner of New Port Richey, who lost his legs to an explosion in Afghanistan, trained as a forensic analyst to fight online pedophiles through the Department of Homeland Security. [CHRIS URSO | Staff (2015)]
Published Jun. 19, 2018

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is pushing back against a social media post implying that a combat-wounded New Port Richey veteran has a Nazi symbol tattooed on his arm.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, ICE officials denied the veteran is associated with Nazis. It quotes Justin Gaertner, a Marine who lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011, saying that the tattoo is not an Iron Cross but a "Titan 2" design, the symbol of his platoon.

Gaertner has been featured in news stories about a public-private program to investigate pedophiles, called the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps or HERO. Created by U.S. Special Operations Command, Homeland Security Investigations and the National Association to Protect Children, the program trains wounded, ill and injured commandos in computer forensics and law enforcement skills to help in the fight against online child sexual exploitation.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE Combat-wounded marines hunt child predators

Gaertner was a member of HERO's first class. He was not a part of the special operations community but did serve as an intern with SOCom's Care Coalition, which helps wounded, ill and injured commandos.

Over the weekend, according to the ICE tweet, reporter Talia Lavin from New Yorker magazine posted a tweet implying that the tattoo was the Iron Cross, a military decoration that dates to the Kingdom of Prussia and was used by Nazi forces. An image of Gaernter and his tattoos apparently first appeared in an ICE tweet from May promoting the HERO program.

That tweet "essentially labeled (Gaertner) a Nazi," ICE said in its response. The agency said the tweet was deleted after veterans took to social media to point out that the tattoo "more closely resembled a Maltese cross." The Maltese cross dates to the time of medieval knights.

Efforts to reach Lavin and the New Yorker were unsuccessful.

An initial round of tweets criticizing Gaertner was met with scores of messages blasting his critics. Right-wing media outlets attacked actor Ron Perlman, whose credits include the television series Sons of Anarchy, for a tweet raising questions about the tattoo: "I know I'm a leftist, 'D List' actor, so my twitter feed is probably deceiving me, but is that an iron cross tattooed on this hero's arm? This is a mistake, right? Cuz the Iron Cross was a symbol of Nazi Germany. Gotta be my twitter feed is leaning left again."

Perlman later apologized for his tweet about Gaertner.

The flap over Gaertner's tattoo feeds into larger discussions over ICE and neo-Nazis in the military.

The ICE debate is fueled in part by a recent change in practice requiring the separation of children from parents who are trying to gain entry into the United States from Mexico.

It also comes in the wake of an investigation by the Florida Army National Guard into a neo-Nazi tattoo displayed by Brandon Russell, a former guardsman stationed at Pinellas Park now serving a five-year federal sentence for bomb-making charges. The investigation included the suggestion that the guard create a database of tattoos to prevent white supremacists from enlisting.

ICE also said its tweet that another tattoo, on Gaertner's right arm, is the "Spartan Creed, which is about protecting families and children."

The ICE tweet ends with a strong admonition for those implying that Gaertner is affiliated with Nazis.

"Anyone attempting to advance their personal political opinions by baselessly slandering an American hero should be issuing public apologies to Mr. Gaertner and retractions," the tweet says. "That includes Lavin and the New Yorker."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

That's right, ICE put an iron cross in their self-promoting tweet.

Once more for those in the back:

THAT'S A NAZI TATTOO ON HIS LEFT ELBOW AND THIS IS OFFICIAL INSTITUTIONAL PROPAGANDA https://t.co/gxvsxkdbHh

Per Gaertner, the tattoo on his left elbow is "Titan 2," the symbol for his platoon while he fought in Afghanistan. The writing on his right arm is the Spartan Creed which is about protecting family and children. pic.twitter.com/qs8H3tkd6l

Are you an idiot? Thats a cross from a skateboard company. Way to dox a veteran because of your own stupidity. I have attached the company and an ACTUAL Iron cross. Btw, history lesson. The Iron cross predates Nazis. pic.twitter.com/ZbXGAprY3E

My apologies! I mistook the symbol on this man's arm before I actually knew the facts. So again, I apologize to the man in this picture for my mistake.

Maybe it was the gusto, the relish this agency seems to project in their obsession to racially profile decent people. https://t.co/7heFecxSY4

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