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Parris Island drill instructors face scrutiny after recruit's death

Drill instructors prepare their recruits for Marine Corps martial arts training on Oct. 24, 2013, at Parris Island.

VANIAH TEMPLE/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By TODD SPANGLER | Detroit Free Press | Published: December 30, 2016

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — More than 500 recruits, mainly teens, stretch before sunrise in the shadows of a dimly lit field at the famous Marine Corps boot camp here. But it's the 20 or so drill instructors, more muscled and far louder, who make the strongest impression as they dash around and bark orders at the top of their lungs.

On day four of what will be a grueling 13-week indoctrination for the recruits, the sun is not yet up but the drill instructors (DIs) are already making demands: Crunches must be performed to specifications. For pull-ups, recruits will not swing their legs, or rest their chins on the bar. Barely visible sand gnats bite indiscriminately. Recruits do as many chin-ups as they can and then must hang, arms burning, until the drill instructor blurts, “Go away” — then disappears into the dark.

At Parris Island, the Marine Corps wants outsiders to focus on the almost-magical transformation of its recruits, several hundred at a time, from soft civilians unable to march or hold a rifle into battle-ready Marines — so disciplined, respectful and fit, some parents barely recognize them after the 13 weeks of training.

But since the death of Raheel Siddiqui — a Muslim recruit from Taylor, who Marine investigators say committed suicide in March after being abused by a DI — the spotlight has swung to Parris Island’s iconic instructors, a group so often stereotyped as demanding and violent by Hollywood cliché and retired Marines that it’s often forgotten they face demands as great, if not greater, than the recruits.

“Their job, I’m going to tell you, is very, very hard," said Brig. Gen. Austin "Sparky" Renforth, who took command of the base following Siddiqui’s death. He now must strike a balance between cracking down on DIs and also recognizing that the pressures they face, along with the power they're given, almost guarantees that without proper oversight, abuse can occur.

In the aftermath of Siddiqui's death and investigations which alleged widespread verbal and physical abuse, the Free Press visited Parris Island, talking to DIs and the commanders who oversee and train them, seeing the stairwell where Siddiqui is said to have jumped following a drill instructor's slap and asking questions about how such abuse could occur.

Always on the move and renowned for a signature bark that can freeze an officer or enlisted man, DIs are expected to form near-perfect Marines — or weed out those unacceptable to the task — through  intensive exercises in shooting, fighting, swimming, running, hiking, gas attacks and much more.

Teens who not long before were playing video games or hanging out at the mall are taught choke holds, leg sweeps and how to defend themselves with a knife or a bayonet. They face enemy fire and crawl through barbed wire to take a position. Recruits learn how to stand, eat, dress and sleep. And to get them there, drill instructor must be slave-driver and supporter, trainer and torturer — all without crossing a line into actual abuse forbidden by Marine regulation.

For some instructors, it’s a line that gets blurred.

“They’re here at 3 in the morning sometimes, and they don’t leave til 2200 — 10 o’clock at night,” said Renforth. “It gets to them. These are great Americans that sometimes get to that edge.”

The official story of Siddiqui's death is that the 20-year-old former high school valedictorian jumped from a third-story stairwell. His family rejects that finding.

Four months after a Marine Corps report linked his death to earlier abuse at the hands of a DI, no charges have been filed in his case. But for other incidents, three DIs have been referred to courts-martial, including at least one on a charge of cruelty. A fourth has been ordered to undergo an evidentiary hearing as part of a widening probe into DI abuse on Parris Island.

So far, the investigations sparked in part by Siddiqui's death have resulted in at least 20 officers or enlisted instructors targeted for punishment or administrative discipline. More formal charges and courts-martial are expected.

But changes are already being felt among Parris Island’s DIs, a group of enlisted men and women who by history, tradition and practice have been given wide authority and autonomy when it comes to training raw recruits.

Renforth, who defends the vast majority of DIs on Parris Island as dedicated and trustworthy, accepts no excuse for abuse that occurred on the base. He has gotten rid of longstanding, informal rules regarding seniority and hazing among DIs. He ordered more officer oversight and instituted rules in which any violation — from using profanity to slapping a recruit — will get a DI at least temporarily suspended.

“You would have thought I was taking away their lunch money. But they’re coming around,” Renforth said. “They understand the situation we’re in. When something like this happens, we open ourselves up to be scrutinized. … And when you open yourself up to be scrutinized, you better stand by for changes.”

“The drill instructor culture is a very unique and tight culture, and I think it does need to be kept in check,” he added. “There’s a fundamental problem with any organization that considers themselves special. … We’re giving them this big round hat, we’re giving you a belt and we’re telling you you’re the cream of the crop. … We’ve got to be real careful when we do that to somebody.”

Abuses versus pride

The investigations — described as “disturbing” by the White House — documented various instances of recruits choked, beaten, denied food and water, ordered to lie and to perform repeated physical tasks as punishment and routinely threatened by DIs.

In Siddiqui’s case, an as-yet unnamed DI allegedly slapped him at least once after ordering him to do repeated runs in the third-floor barracks after Siddiqui said he needed medical attention for a sore throat and refused to speak.

After falling at his DI's feet, the investigation found, Siddiqui suddenly got up and ran through an exterior door, leaping over a stairwell. His feet caught the rail as he fell. He died a few hours later at a local hospital.

Investigators found Siddiqui and another Muslim recruit in an earlier platoon were abused and called “terrorists.” The other recruit allegedly was ordered into an industrial dryer which was turned on, burning him. Others — non-Muslims — told stories of being slammed by the head into doorways, of being told, “If you’re not careful, you are going to wake up with a knife in your chest.”

Since Siddiqui's death in March, there have been at least two more incidents at Parris Island that caused concerns, though neither has been linked to any DIs. In one, a recruit was found dead in his bunk. In another, a new recruit from Sterling Heights, 18-year-old Kristian Gashaj, fell two stories from the base receiving center on Oct. 28. He remains in critical condition with head injuries.

Nearly every old Marine seems to have a story about their own drill instructors and how tough they were, many saying they were better for the experience. In one unsolicited e-mail to the Free Press, a Marine who served in the 1960s remembered a DI punching him in the mouth because he was chewing gum.

“I would not want those that could not make it thru boot camp next to me in combat,” he wrote.

But that’s not everyone’s experience: Jake Weaver bunked near that Muslim recruit ordered into a dryer, called a terrorist and targeted for what seemed to be unfair treatment. Weaver had his head smashed in a doorway, saw others beaten and choked and was told to lie — actions he could not reconcile with his belief in the Corps.

Making it through boot camp, he moved on for training — and began to have suicidal thoughts. Eventually, he would receive a less-than-honorable discharge, a decision he is fighting, believing the treatment he suffered and witnessed on Parris Island directly led to his emotional problems. A colonel who signed off on Weaver's discharge has signed an affidavit saying if he had known medical personnel linked Weaver's condition to his experience on Parris Island, he almost certainly would have given him an honorable discharge.

“It was like a knowing feeling of where I was going to be in the Marine Corps … Becoming part of an unethical organization and it just depressed me,” said Weaver, who was homeschooled in Florida, but was no stranger to physical demands as an accomplished runner and soccer player. “I would go to bed at night thinking how much easier things would be if I weren’t alive.”

DIs say the idea of beating or hazing a recruit isn’t a matter for debate — no matter the stereotype. The prohibition is spelled out in the base’s Recruit Training Order, a 200-plus-page document that lays out about every aspect of life on Parris Island.

“There are rules and regulations that we have to abide by,” said Staff Sgt. John Eversley, a 31-year-old Baltimore native. “We have ways, the right way, to instill discipline. We have ways to reprimand recruits who don’t want to adapt, who are not conforming to what we need them to do. … There’s not a gray area in terms of how we instill discipline, how far we can go in terms of if we touch them.”

That’s not to deny it happens, however, especially in a job Eversley and another DI, Sgt. Alexander Spence, 25, also of Baltimore, say is a 10 out of 10 in terms of its demands. When it does happen, they said, it’s not about DIs as a group. It’s about that individual Marine.

“We do have a powerful position and those that don’t acknowledge that, they can abuse it,” said Eversley. “That doesn’t mean it’s right.”

'The reality is, it's hard'

Much of what happens on Parris Island happens in the dark.

Recruits are up by 4 a.m., head off to chow and then are training before the fog has lifted, their moonbeams — flashlights to the rest of us — skipping across a field at a distance, a cadence being called.

They come here in the dark, too, buses dropping them off as they are first run onto a series of painted yellow footprints in ordered lines, then hustled past silver doors with the inscription, “Through these portals pass prospects for America’s finest fighting force.”

And they prepare to leave in the dark: Officers, DIs and now-hardened recruits take part in a 3-mile run together  accompanied by a 9-piece band — Renforth’s gesture toward lightheartedness — before sunrise and an hour or so before the recruits will see their families for the first time in three months, the day before graduation.

There is another kind of darkness here, too — the darkness of the squad bay, the Marine terminology for barracks. At night the DIs interact with their platoons out of sight of rank superiors in a place that recognizes them as the “central figure” and “leadership bedrock” of recruit training.

“First month I was here, I’d walk on a squad bay and I could see them scurrying like ants — just all over the place,” said Renforth. It took him time, he said, to convince recruits that he was there to help them, to help make sure events did not spiral out of control, not to catch them doing something wrong.

But that darkness also conceals a history of abusive incidents.

In 1956, a Parris Island DI marched his platoon into a swampy area around Ribbon Creek, and six recruits drowned. Twenty years later, a recruit died after being beaten with training sticks. Each brought changes for DIs. Other, more recent examples also have led to charges, to DIs being separated from duty.

It’s not just Parris Island, either. In 2012, the Air Force investigated nearly two dozen instructors for sexual assault, improper relationship with trainees and other abuses. In 2006-07,DIs at Marines’ training depot in San Diego were courts-martialed for rampant abuse involving recruits.

“The culture is definitely a part of it,” said Laura Miller, a senior military sociologist at RAND Corp., a research and analysis think tank, when asked why some instructors may fall into abusive behavior.

“Do they believe they’re supposed to be putting the recruits through the hardest experience they can so they can weed out the weak, or do they believe they’re supposed to be training people and inspiring them so they handle those challenges?” she said. “Those can result in two very different behaviors.”

Systematic hazing, Miller said, is one thing — less likely about stress that a DI may experience and more  how he or she believes the recruits should be treated and how those views may change, given the power imbalance between DIs and recruits and the amount of time they spend together without direct oversight.

But there are other dangers, too, in cases where an overstressed DI, out of sight of any superior, might take his or her frustration out on a recruit. Ultimately, boot camp isn't just about training Marines — it's a test of what happens when one group has near-total authority over another.

It's a problem far more difficult to solve than it seems.

“The reality is, it’s hard,” said retired Major Gen. Melvin Spiese, who ran the Marines Training and Education Command in Quantico, Va., which oversees Parris Island, from 2008-10. “It’s hard at fraternity initiations, it’s hard at military schools when dealing with plebes. This is not a unique phenomenon to boot camp.”

“As a function of human nature, these kind of activities … can easily get out of hand.”

Training the trainers 

In a classroom at Parris Island’s drill instructor school, a class of a few dozen men and women are quizzed on the finer points of the Recruit Training Order: What to do if someone threatens suicide, how to respond to an injury, how to handle the transition from the hard-nosed demeanor demanded of DIs in the first few weeks of a recruit class' training to becoming more of a mentor, a guidance counselor of sorts, in the later ones.

“They don’t yell all the time,” Renforth tells a reporter, sounding exasperated at the suggestion that’s all they do. “There’s a lot of teaching involved in this.”

But at the base’s DI school — where Marines can secure a three-year special duty assignment that could be a key to future promotion — they also talk about authority and power imbalances and experiments into group psychology. They discuss the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student researchers, given the role of guards over volunteer prisoners, within days began abusing their power, with even the lead researcher becoming compromised.

“We talk about dehumanizing, we talk about positions of power. We talk about what happens when you have ultimate control,” said Maj. Steven Allshouse, the school’s director. “It has nothing to do with the type of person you are … but the environment we’re forcing you to work in because it’s hard here. It’s hot. You work long hours. It could create an environment where you do things.”

Those lessons focus not just on what as DI shouldn’t do but  what they should — step in if they see an instructor on the brink of losing it.

“I have to be able to see something’s different by the way your posture is, the way you’re walking, the way you’re speaking, and realize something’s not right,” said Allshouse, describing the moral and ethical role DIs must play for each other. “My job is to prevent you from having that moment, that momentary lapse in judgment.”

There is a lot riding on that role: A violation can almost inevitably lead to a Marine’s career coming to an end. And the damage done to a recruit can be longer-lasting, even fatal.

It’s one of the reasons that hazing among DIs is no longer tolerated, as it's seen as undermining the trust they need to place in each other. And it's a battle that requires additional steps — more oversight, relief for DIs and a change in structure, said retired Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler. Penzler ran the DI school in San Diego in 2008-09 and was executive officer of its 1st Training Battalion before that.

“Your moral challenge is not going to come in a classroom," he said of the DIs. "It’s going to come at 2:30 in the morning, you just had a fight with your wife, your baby is crying and you’re on training day 50. You need to understand you’re a human being, you need to know what your stress triggers are.”

For the DIs themselves, many volunteer for this duty, some are “volun-told,” by superiors who consider it their next move up the career ladder. In either case, it’s an honor, despite the pressures, because they're being asked to serve as role models for their recruits much as their own DIs served as role models for them.

It’s an unbroken chain, from DI to future DI, passed on one recruit at a time.

And that brings its own threat.

The recruits, as Allshouse says, see everything: A sergeant’s new stripe. The kind of watch that he wears. As part of a unit with an unquestioned leader, they not only usually accept what they see  but also emulate it.

"They have these ideas what a drill instructor is supposed to be like, just like civilians do when they come down here," Renforth said of the enlisted men and women who return to Parris Island to become DIs themselves. "Their only sample in their life is when they went through boot camp and how their drill instructor treated them."

On Family Day there is a short ceremony on base. The platoons are brought into a large auditorium one at a time, marching to command, snapping straight in their lines.

Families are decked out with banners and jackets or shirts with their names: Molina, Rawls, Mims. There is pride in the air and the joy of reunion. A speaker gets a laugh when he talks about Marines being shaped by their “friendly drill instructors.”

As the ceremony breaks up, families pour out of the stands, searching for their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters. Fathers get teary-eyed looking into sons’ eyes. Moms remark how skinny their child has gotten. New Marines call their parents “sir” and “ma’am.”

Amid the celebration, the circling bodies, the hugging, the crying, the DIs fade into the background.

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com.

Parris Island boot camp

Formally, it’s known as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Eastern Recruiting Region, but Marines know it as Parris Island — where enlisted recruits, or boots, from across the East Coast are trained.

Located about an hour south of Charleston along the South Carolina coast, Parris Island has been of military importance at least since Nov. 2, 1861, when the U.S. Navy seized the area during the Civil War. 

A recruit depot began there in 1911, was later moved to Norfolk, Va., and then returned in 1915.

The Marines have been training recruits there since then. 

Under the present makeup, some 19,000 recruits attached to one of four training battalions, with a fifth providing support, go through Parris Island each year, a process that includes a week of reception  by the Marine Corps and 12 weeks of training concluded with the Crucible, a 54-hour training event in which the recruits get limited sleep and food. At its conclusion, recruits who make it are Marines.

A few more facts about the Parris Island depot: 

• Its total population is about 3,800 Marines and sailors, not including the recruits but including about 550 drill instructors. Parris Island also has about 500 civilian employees.

• About 60,000 visitors come to the island each year, and it has an estimated economic impact of about $600 million annually.

• Parris Island’s drill instructor school is an 11-week-long course for Marines accepted for special duty assignment. It involves more than 600 hours of academic and administration instruction, including nearly 200 hours on how best to instruct recruits and nearly 90 hours of leadership development and ethics.

Source: U.S. Marine Corps

©2016 the Detroit Free Press
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Marine Corps recruits on a combat training course, July 19, 2016, on Parris Island, S.C.
CARLIN WARREN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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