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Military isn't sufficiently tracking hazing incidents, watchdog says

By Brock Vergakis | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 11, 2016

NORFOLK — The military and the Coast Guard aren't sufficiently tracking hazing incidents, which is limiting their ability to address the problem within their ranks, a federal watchdog report has concluded.

The Government Accountability Office report says that while the Army, Navy and Marine Corps track reported hazing incidents, what they collect and how they collect it varies widely. The report says the Air Force and Coast Guard don't specifically track them at all.

The Department of Defense and the Coast Guard "do not know the extent of hazing in their organizations because they have not conducted an evaluation of the prevalence of hazing," says the report, which was released Tuesday .

Military hazing grabbed Congress' attention after a series of high-profile cases including the 2011 suicide of Rep. Judy Chu's nephew, a 21-year-old Marine serving in Afghanistan. He shot himself after his fellow Marines hazed him for more than three hours by stomping on his back, kicking him, pouring a sandbag onto his face and in his mouth and forcing him to exercise in full body armor.

Chu subsequently proposed legislation that was enacted requiring military branches to report their incidents of hazing, but she found those reports lacking in detail and requested the GAO to investigate.

More recently, a Marine was tried and convicted at Norfolk Naval Station of one count of hazing for humiliating and physically abusing those under his command. The Marine originally was accused of multiple counts of hazing Marines under his command in 2013 at bases in Virginia and in Cuba when he was a platoon sergeant with the Marine Corps Security Forces Regiment.

Also in 2013, two top leaders aboard the Norfolk-based guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham were fired after a Navy investigation revealed they took no action when more than a dozen female sailors were forced to march in formation while carrying buckets of human waste.

The Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security responded to the GAO report by saying they agreed with the recommendations made to better track hazing.

The variances in how the services track hazing shows up in the statistics they reported to the GAO from December 2012 to December 2014.

The Air Force reported four instances, which was determined by searching a legal database, even though there is no requirement for the word "hazing" to be included in the case narrative. In comparison, the Marine Corps reported 303 incidents from May 2013 to December 2014. The GAO said the Marines were overcounting their number because of inconsistent methods, which resulted in overstating their totals by 100 hazing cases, at least 50 alleged offenders and at least 90 alleged victims.

The Navy reported 73 cases of hazing during the same period, although it only requires collecting data on substantiated cases of hazing, and can also include unsubstantiated cases.

The report also says that because policies are so broad many military service members may not have enough information to determine whether instances of training or discipline may be considered hazing.

The GAO report notes that military leaders in each branch said that a variety of behaviors could be perceived as hazing under current definitions.

"At our site visits, service members in each focus group, as well as groups of non-commissioned officers, noted that perception plays a significant role in deciding whether something is hazing or not – that service members may believe they have been hazed because they feel demeaned, for example," the GAO report says.

The report says each service has developed training that provides an overview of prohibited conduct and potential consequences, but investigators didn't find training material that enables servicemen and women to identify less-obvious incidents of potential hazing.

"Likewise, the Navy's training is designed to empower sailors to recognize, intervene, and stop various behaviors such as hazing that are not aligned with the Navy's ethos and core values," the report says. "However, our review found that the training focuses on intervening when an incident of hazing has occurred and does not include information to help service members discern, for example, when a permissible activity is being used in an impermissible manner."

In December, the Defense Department issued new guidance that distinguishes between bullying and hazing.

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Lt. Col. Michael Schoenfeldt, commander, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, leads battalion leaders through a discussion on hazing during the 1st ABCT Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention conference on Dec. 7, 2015, at Fort Hood, Texas.
Christopher Dennis/U.S. Army photo

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