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Marine recruit needed skin grafts to treat chemical burns, documents reveal

Marine Staff Sgt. Nathan A. Rodgers, senior drill instructor for Platoon 3017, Company M, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, leads his platoon during a final drill evaluation March 22, 2017, on Parris Island, S.C. Parris Island is one of the South Carolina bases that helps contribute more than $24 billion to the state's economy.

CARLIN WARREN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: May 3, 2017

A Marine Corps recruit who was hazed by his drill instructor suffered second- and third-degree chemical burns on his buttocks so severe that he needed skin grafts, according to documents newly released by the service.

The recruit's skin was "liquefied" at the service's storied boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, the documents said. The injuries occurred after he was ordered to perform unauthorized exercises under an upside-down laundry bin on a floor covered in bleach and required to stay in his wet pants for hours. The recruit reluctantly told another drill instructor about his burns that night, but stayed in training for a few more days. His condition deteriorated after he was told that he would not be able to graduate with his peers if he sought medical attention.

A Marine official previously disclosed that the drill instructor, former Sgt. Jeffrey VanDyke, was sentenced in 2014 to a year in military prison after being convicted at court-martial of numerous allegations of cruelty and maltreatment, assault and failure to obey a lawful order in the case. But the severity of the recruit's December 2012 injuries, considered among the most egregious suffered by a recruit in years, has not previously been disclosed.

The case was detailed among thousands of pages of documents released to The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act by the Marine Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Combined, they show that a hazing scandal that erupted last year at Parris Island following the death of a recruit, Pvt. Raheel Siddiqui, is part of a history that includes dozens of cases of hazing and abuse against recruits in the past five years.

Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, has said that hazing and abuse of recruits will not be tolerated. The service has responded to the cases that emerged last year by increasing the number of officers and drill instructors who oversee recruits and reemphasizing in training the responsibilities that go with supervising Marine recruits, said Capt. Joshua Pena, a Marine spokesman.

Siddiqui, 20, died at Parris Island on March 18, 2016. He fell 40 feet over a railing after facing physical abuse from his drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, according to military documents. Separately, Felix also is accused of putting another Muslim recruit in an industrial-sized clothes dryer and turning it on repeatedly in July 2015. He and another former drill instructor, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, face charges that include cruelty and maltreatment, being drunk and disorderly, failing to obey a lawful order and making false official statements in that case.

VanDyke, who could not be reached for comment, was accused by numerous recruits and some other drill instructors of abusing recruits. He denied many of the allegations, but acknowledged to investigators that he had been removed from training for three days previously after grabbing a recruit by the throat.

VanDyke regularly struggled with his temper and coped with post-traumatic stress after a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan in which he treated civilians who were wounded, he told investigators. He took responsibility for any harm he caused the burned recruit, although he said he did not remember using bleach.

"I know I need to face the punishment because I have done wrong things," VanDyke told investigators. "Whatever punishment is deemed appropriate, I will accept. I know my career as a Marine is over, which I hate because I love being a Marine and fighting for my country."

The burned recruit did everything he could to continue training, applying burn cream repeatedly even as he performed exercises and went to the rifle range. Eventually, the pain was too much and received treatment from doctors on base and nearby hospitals.

The recruit told an NCIS agent that he initially felt sympathetic toward VanDyke, but eventually grew angry about what occurred. The incident, he told the agent, was a "black stain" on his career because he got his drill instructor in trouble, according to a report filed by the agent.

At least 20 other hazing investigations involving drill instructors have been detailed by the Marine Corps and released through the Freedom of Information Act in the last few weeks in a rolling fashion.

In one case that has not previously been disclosed, a drill instructor in San Diego faced charges of abusive sexual contact, cruelty and maltreatment and failure to obey a lawful order in an investigation begun in April 2014. The case stemmed from an incident in which the Marine ordered several dozen recruits who had not been hustling enough for his liking to run back and forth in a shower room and squash together against its walls repeatedly, even though many of them were naked.

Recruits expressed mixed feelings about the treatment, with some saying they were uncomfortable or offended by the skin-on-skin contact and others saying they did not think it was a big deal.

"During the incident I felt uncomfortable and like I was not a man, because it was humiliating," one recruit said in an interview. "I know I would never let something like this happen if I was in control of the situation."

The service ultimately dropped the charge of abusive sexual contact and punished the Marine administratively for the two other charges he faced. He lost $1,854 in wages, was placed on restriction for two months and separated from the service, according to service documents. He was not identified publicly because he did not face a criminal trial.

In another case in San Diego, a drill instructor was accused of physically assaulting numerous recruits, and nearly strangling some of them. The case was closed in January 2016 with the service finding the Marine guilty at summary court-martial of assault and not obeying a lawful order.

He was put on restriction for 60 days, demoted a rank to corporal, docked $1,656 in pay and reassigned to another job in the service away from the drill field. His name was withheld in documents released by the Marine Corps.

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