Documents: Marines disciplined at San Diego boot camp for abuse and racism targeting recruits
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: October 5, 2019
More than 20 Marines have been disciplined for misconduct at the service's recruit training center in San Diego since 2017, incidents that included some physical attacks and racist and homophobic slurs, according to Marine Corps officials and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The disclosure follows promises by senior Marine Corps leaders to combat aggressive recruit training practices that fall outside service guidelines in the wake of a scandal in which a 20-year-old Muslim man died after enduring physical and verbal abuse at the Marine Corps' recruit training center on Parris Island, South Carolina.
The March 2016 death of Pvt. Raheel Siddiqui, who fell 40 feet to his death while running away from a drill instructor who had targeted him and other Muslim recruits, brought a public reckoning for the Marine Corps, which perhaps more than any other military service has celebrated the intimidating boot camp curriculum it imposes upon prospective Marines.
Since that incident, which resulted in a 10-year prison sentence for one Marine and a variety of disciplinary action for others, the Marine Corps has attempted to reset recruit training by placing more emphasis on training for drill instructors on acting professionally and preventing hazing and abuse.
In a statement, Marine officials in San Diego said that Marine Corps recruit training is "challenging for recruits and staff alike," and that each drill instructor undergoes thousands of hours of training and assessment.
"There is a very small percentage that fall short and must be held accountable for their individual actions," the statement said. "The overwhelming majority of drill instructors serve with distinction, and without any allegation of inappropriate conduct."
But a number of cases have continued to emerge at both of its enlisted recruit training facilities.
The incidents in San Diego, which have not been reported previously, include verified allegations of Marines assaulting recruits by kicking, punching and shoving, activity that is explicitly prohibited under the service's regulations, and other more minor incidents. They are detailed in approximately 700 pages of case files released to The Post in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In one case, an unidentified drill instructor injured a recruit and set back his own military career by taking a staple gun and snapping two staples into the recruit's torso. An armored plate in the recruit's body armor stopped one of the staples near his stomach, but the other one punctured his vest.
"It left a wound right around where my heart is," the unidentified recruit told an investigator, according to the documents. "I did not say anything because I did not want to anger him more."
The recruit, who had been carrying the staple gun to fasten paper targets on a rifle range, did not require medical treatment, and reported the incident to a senior drill instructor that night in August 2017. That Marine asked other recruits whether they also faced abuse.
Several said they had, according to the documents, including one recruit who said he had been ordered by the same drill instructor to eat part of a pine cone during a hike a day earlier. The recruit said he did not report that incident right away because he thought that sort of thing happened at boot camp.
Other recruits reported that the drill instructor had acted erratically for a couple of days, saying things like "I hope you hang yourself" and vomiting the morning of the staple-gun incident, the documents say. They questioned whether the drill instructor had been drinking, and another drill instructor said that, in retrospect, he thought it was possible. The Marine officer who investigated the incident wrote in his report that it "makes sense" that the drill instructor's sobriety was questioned, but that there was not enough evidence to prove he was intoxicated.
The Marine was going through personal issues that included a divorce and an injury requiring pain medication at the time, the investigating officer wrote in his report. He recommended that the drill instructor be court-martialed for charges that include cruelty and maltreatment, according to the documents.
"Given his actions with these recruits . . . there would likely be additional allegations of recruit maltreatment" if further investigated, the investigator determined.
However, as with other cases detailed in the documents, the Marine Corps elected not to pursue a court-martial. Instead, the service punished the Marine administratively, keeping the case out of court and away from public scrutiny. He received a formal reprimand, a demotion in rank, forfeiture of two months of pay and permanently lost his job as a drill instructor, the service said in its statement to The Post. He left the service in September 2018.
"The individual was held accountable for their actions, which were starkly incongruent to a Marine leader responsible for training recruits and Marines," the service said in its written response.
In another case, a sergeant who in 2017 worked around recruits as a military instructor and member of the Weapons and Field Training Battalion was reported for misconduct that included assault and using racist terms.
In the first, the Marine asked a recruit who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent whether he was a terrorist, echoing a form of verbal abuse that preceded Siddiqui's death at Parris Island just a few months prior. Some recruits interviewed by investigators said they believed the drill instructor's comments were intended to be funny, but one noted that the recruit who had been singled out felt differently.
The second incident followed a land-navigation exercise, after another recruit was asked his name, the documents say. The instructor, who identified himself as white in the documents, first referred to the recruit as "white boy," but then asked, "Oh, so you're a wetback?" after the recruit identified himself by name. "Wetback" is a racist term, disparaging to Hispanics.
The Marine then kicked the recruit, according to the documents, causing him to stumbled backward.
The accused Marine said the "racial" comments were not directed at the recruit, but a part of a conversation he was having with two colleagues who were present. But based on other interviews, the investigating officer determined that the Marine demonstrated "a deeply troubled character that does not contain any sense of professionalism or appropriate decorum."
The service said the Marine, who was not a drill instructor, was reprimanded, demoted in rank, put on 60 days of restriction and forfeited pay. He later left the service.
Parris Island also has continued to see abuse cases since 2016, according to documents released to The Post separately in May in response to another FOIA request.
The service disclosed then that at least eight drill instructors and some officers were punished in response to cases of hazing and abuse since 2017. Those cases occurred in Parris Island's 4th Recruit Training Battalion, a unit in which female drill instructors train female recruits.
In one of those cases, a drill instructor ordered a recruit to put soiled underwear on her head, documents said. The drill instructor later told investigators she didn't think the recruit would take her seriously.
Another prospective Marine reported that she had been ordered, more than required, into a gas chamber used to expose recruits to CS gas.