On a quiet Wednesday in June, a man walked into the 215,000-acre military base in central Texas known as Fort Hood, armed with a pair of bolt-cutters. He had already planned which cache of equipment was most vulnerable, and quietly beelined to the stash.
One by one, the padlocks fell under the jaws of the bolt-cutters, until he gazed upon 17 opened equipment containers. Then he dialed a friend, who drove into Fort Hood and straight to the haul. In front of them were multiple sets of laser rangefinders, 58 high-tech thermal scopes, four night-vision scopes, 12 pairs of night-vision goggles and several laser aiming devices. They loaded the equipment into the second man’s car, and then went their separate ways off-base. The next day, the driver journeyed four hours south to the city of Corpus Christi, where he met Nathan Nichols, a local business owner with a penchant for operating illegal slot machines.
Three months earlier, Nichols had become the lynchpin in the plan to heist military gear from Fort Hood, which promised to pay handsomely if the two men could deliver some state-of-the-art weapon scopes in particular. It seemed like a layup for the duo, a former U.S. Army soldier and a current civilian contractor who both had clearance to access Fort Hood. All they had to do was destroy some paperwork after pilfering the goods.
Ultimately, Nichols paid an undisclosed amount to the former soldier for the gear, and then started listing his wares on eBay. In July, about a month after the sales began, authorities raided Nichols’ home and found the stash of unsold gear. In total, the military valued the equipment at nearly $2.2 million — and Nichols will have to pay back all of it as part of his guilty plea, which unfolded on March 21st.
The indictment from December, while lacking numerous details (Nichols’ co-conspirators are yet unnamed), paints a picture of just how simple it was for the trio to almost get away with stealing a small truckload of high-end weapon accessories. Nichols wasn’t some clever criminal with deep-seated connections in the military. He was just a guy who owned two blue-collar drinking holes and had spare cash to blow on something a little risky. The two military men provided the perfect outlet, especially considering how coveted night-vision and thermal optics are in the world of gun obsessives, military LARPers and paranoid doomsday preppers.
This is hardly the first time that important military equipment has been stolen straight off of bases; the last decade is littered with examples of service members, veterans and civilian contractors swiping guns, bombs and tech without setting off alarms. These insiders, whom experts say often work in the lower ranks of the hierarchy, are especially clever at spotting weaknesses and easy opportunities to make a buck, especially given the bureaucratic disarray around documenting inventory. A 2021 investigation by the Associated Press estimated that at least 1,900 firearms were stolen from the military in the last decade — a figure it notes is “almost certainly” an undercount and which doesn’t include the various kinds of non-firearm equipment, like Nichols’ scopes and sights, that go missing every year from hundreds of military sites around the country.
In the spring of 2018, a veteran and active-duty Army soldier who were best friends collaborated to steal some $180,000 in guns and explosives from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The latter man worked in the armory, giving him front-row access to both the equipment and the paperwork. Over the course of the summer, the duo looped in a third veteran, a former combat engineer who went by “Mr. Anderson” and served as a liaison to potential buyers of the stolen equipment. The trio were snagged in an undercover operation in November, and ultimately revealed a string of previous thefts that went unreported.
In 2016, a group of soldiers and civilian contractors were indicted for stealing gun parts, high-tech optics, body armor, combat helmets and more, which they hid across multiple warehouses and then sold to buyers in 11 countries. In 2015, a former Army reservist stole 16 firearms from a Worcester military armory, some of which kept floating around and were used in crimes even after the case was prosecuted. Also in 2015, an American military contractor stole power generators, a truck and other items from a base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, using her security clearance to falsify documents and help shuttle stolen goods to unknown buyers around the region.
There are other examples, including many smaller thefts that demonstrate just how easy it is for the average person to game the military-industrial complex, as long as they have a little bit of authority within the system. This isn’t a contemporary revelation for U.S. military leaders, either; experts have been warning about systemic thefts ever since the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when the budding far-right militia movement started courting disillusioned veterans and used them to steal guns and munitions off military sites.
Even in 1991, the federal government was keenly aware of the problem. It empowered the FBI to conduct a sting dubbed Operation Punchout, setting up a military surplus store as an undercover front for purchasing stolen equipment. The investigation found that, in the vast majority of cases, the guilty party was a service member or contractor who worked on the base they stole from. And the problem isn’t merely the principle of stolen goods as a bellwether for the breakdown of bureaucracy and security in the armed forces — it’s quite literally a matter of public safety, too. The AP investigation into stolen weapons found that some guns had been used in civilian shootouts, with the military not even knowing the guns were missing in the first place, and there’s also evidence that stolen military firearms keep getting sold to gangs in California.
Then there’s the far-right extremism connection, as experts like Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, have observed that the violent far right is continuing to target military members and equipment as key to their strength and growth today. In one infamous 2013 case, former Minnesota national guardsman Keith Michael Novak stole the identification, security clearances and Social Security numbers of some 400 of his peers at Fort Bragg, intending to create fake IDs for his own homegrown militia. He also stole multiple bulletproof vests and had plans to bury caches of stolen gear over time, prosecutors said.
With white nationalist and militia involvement continuing to persist in the armed forces today, it’s almost certain that violent right-wing groups are planning ways to leverage military interest and gain a deadly edge in firearms and equipment, especially with accelerationist plots and talks of the next civil war.
The U.S. military, for one, has publicly maintained that the stolen losses are a drop in the bucket compared to the overall volume of inventory being used every day. It has pointed to improvements like the long-overdue digitization of the Army’s lost-and-found system for equipment. But as the AP reported in 2021, military investigators still regularly close missing gun cases without finding the gear or the person responsible. And there’s nothing to suggest this will change anytime soon, even with piecemeal reforms being announced last year.
Consider it the consequence of the world’s biggest military-industrial complex, fueled by the biggest defense budget in human history. It’s not surprising that in uncertain times, some desperate people are seeking out every edge and advantage they can mine — whether it’s just for personal wealth, or the empowerment of something bigger and darker.