Recruits at Parris Island have been subjected to severe hazing, far beyond that experienced in other U.S. military boot camps. Is this really the only way to create a warrior?
By JANET REITMAN
He was alie when he landed, his body bouncing off the steel handrails and onto the concrete steps. A Marine passing by phoned 9-1-1. The other D.I.s herded the platoon into the bathroom and instructed the recruits to face the wall. They heard the ambulance show up and depart. Then they were herded to physical training as if it were any other morning and told not to talk about what they’d seen. ‘‘They tried to put the blame on him,’’ the platoonmate says — like, ‘‘ ‘We were trying to train him, and he took it wrong.’ But I mean, what the hell are we doing here? I just watched a kid kill himself. I’m not here for that. We were all traumatized.’’
An air ambulance was requested to take Raheel to a hospital in Savannah, Ga., 40 miles away, but the request was denied because of heavy fog. A second air lift was scuttled, and so Marines drove him to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where after an hour of sustained effort in the emergency room, doctors decided Raheel needed higher-level care. Three hours after his fall, he arrived at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. It was too late: At 10:06, after more than an hour of attempts to save his life, Raheel was pronounced dead.
The following day, an autopsy was performed at the hospital. The medical examiner concluded that Raheel died of blunt-force trauma sustained during his fall. But the autopsy report, details of which were shown to me by the Siddiqui family, also found evidence of petechial hemorrhaging, which can be caused by anything from heavy coughing to vomiting or asphyxiation and strangulation. Several days later, J. Edward Allen, the Beaufort County coroner, wrote a final autopsy report concluding that ‘‘in light of the history provided and the autopsy findings,’’ Raheel had committed suicide.
A week after Raheel died, his body was sent back to his parents in Michigan. At the funeral home, the family stared down in horror at their son. His arms, chest, stomach and legs were purple. There were ligature marks, not unlike the ridges of a webbed military belt, around his neck, which had not been mentioned in the autopsy report. To Ghazala it looked as if her son had been tortured.
In Beaufort, a city with three military installations that collectively pump over $1.5 billion into the local economy, the news that a Marine recruit had died on Parris Island was met with studied silence. ‘‘Marine Corps boot camp isn’t the Boy Scouts,’’ one reader posted on the Facebook page of The Beaufort Gazette, which broke the story on March 20. ‘‘Stay home if you can’t handle some hazing.’’ Hazing had not been mentioned publicly at this point, but in Detroit, the Siddiquis’ Democratic congresswoman, Representative Debbie Dingell, heard through an anonymous tip that religious bias might have played a role in Raheel’s death. In April, Dingell wrote to the Marine commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, asking that an ‘‘unbiased inquiry’’ be made into the matter. Dingell recently told me that soon after she wrote the letter, she received anonymous calls telling her to stay out of Marine business. ‘‘Some of my own colleagues warned me, ‘You don’t want to challenge the Marines on their training methods,’ ’’ she said.
The official investigation into the death of Raheel Siddiqui lasted over a year and spawned two other investigations: a more thorough examination of the hazing allegations in the Bourmeche case and a broader hazing inquiry requested in spring 2016 by the Obama White House, after the president received an anonymous email from unnamed ‘‘concerned loved ones of innocent recruits’’ claiming their children were being abused.
On Sept. 8, 2016, the Marine Corps released the findings of these investigations. That same day, the corps announced that 20 Marines — including, it was later revealed, three teams of drill instructors, several junior officers, Kissoon and the depot’s new regimental commander, Col. Paul Cucinotta — had been relieved of duty and faced punishment pending the results of further investigation. (In early June, Kissoon appeared before the military’s version of a grand jury, and he is still awaiting charges. Six Marines, representing much of the chain of command, were granted immunity or other considerations to testify against him, according to Kissoon’s lawyer.) The reports were heavily redacted; in the 132-page command inquiry into Raheel’s death, the last 43 pages were entirely blacked out.
Of those involved in the three investigations, just six Marines have been formally charged with wrongdoing. Four Marines — one of whom was acquitted at trial, another who pleaded guilty, a third who made ‘‘a pretrial agreement with prosecutors,’’ according to a Marine spokesman, and a fourth who faces a general court-martial — had charges levied against them for abuse-related incidents elsewhere in Lima Company. Felix and another drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Michael Eldridge, were charged with a range of offenses including cruelty and maltreatment, drunk and disorderly conduct and failure to obey a general order. In Felix’s case, the charges also included obstruction of justice stemming from the dryer incident involving Bourmeche and the hazing of Raheel. Both face general courts-martial later this summer.
A number of former and current Marine officials, including several highranking officers, say they are agonized by the reports. ‘‘What I’m hearing makes my stomach turn,’’ the senior officer I spoke to says. ‘‘This isn’t rocket science. We have procedures and policies and rules on the books against this stuff, and people have to enforce them. I mean, who is in charge? If you are having a hard time controlling those drill instructors, you’re not a leader.’’
Though it would be tempting to blame the allegations of abuse on a few Marines — the ‘‘few bad apples’’ theory — Raheel’s platoonmate told me that rough practices in his platoon continued long after Felix and his drill instructor team were replaced, the very next day, with another team, and after that team was later replaced with another. The message, he says, was ‘‘the D.I.s could pretty much get away with anything. Let’s say you did report something. They’d change the D.I., and what happens after that? Another D.I. who presumably was friends with the prior D.I. is going to make your life hell.’’
On Aug. 7, nearly a year and a half to the day that Raheel Siddiqui arrived on Parris Island, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix will stand trial, a proceeding expected to last at least two weeks. The charges against him are technically violations of military discipline; he has not faced broader criminal charges like assault. The Siddiqui family thinks the charges are insufficient. ‘‘We were advised that an assault charge was not brought because the [other charges] carried a harsher penalty,’’ says Shiraz Khan, the family’s lawyer. ‘‘Well, the elements of assault are much different, and so are the implications. The systemic hazing, abuse and maltreatment suffered by Raheel Siddiqui while at Parris Island was not the result of a single incident by one individual. We aren’t blind to what Raheel’s body and autopsy say.’’
When I visited the Siddiquis’ small apartment late last fall, Ghazala, wearing jeans and a sparkly blue hijab, showed me photographs she took of her son’s body at the funeral home. ‘‘Why would they do this to my son?’’ she said, distraught, pausing over a photograph of Raheel’s neck. Taking me upstairs, she led me into his room, which was spotless, almost antiseptic, a shrine to a sometimes mischievous yet fundamentally obedient boy who prayed at least four times a day, dressed in colorful shirts and smiled so much and so often that those who knew him could never imagine him being depressed. Ghazala showed off Raheel’s academic awards and his orange Home Depot apron inscribed with good-luck messages written by every one of his colleagues. The dress-blue uniform he would have worn upon graduating boot camp hung in his closet, neatly pressed. The Marines had dressed Raheel’s body in it. ‘‘He was brainwashed,’’ Ghazala said, wiping away a tear. ‘‘He’s smart, intelligent, beautiful, excellent boy. Perfect. I am so proud of my son.’’ Ghazala spoke of him in the present tense.
No one from the family has agreed to be interviewed since last winter. ‘‘Their son is gone, there are no answers and they’re suffering,’’ says Khan, who told me that his office has received only 20 or so of about 220 pages they’ve requested from the investigation, and have had very little direct discussion with the Marines. For the most part, he says, they have learned about any progress in the case by reading the newspapers.
Kate Germano, who retired from the Marines in 2016, isn’t surprised. ‘‘The last thing the Marines would want is anyone connecting the dots,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘This is a cultural issue. The conduct that is considered acceptable at Parris Island, from the failures in leadership to the hands-on methods the drill instructors use, would not be acceptable anywhere else in the Marine Corps. But down there, for whatever reason, it’s considered a badge of honor. Those who don’t see it that way are considered weak. But it’s not the kids’ fault.’’
The island’s new commanding general, Austin Renforth, known as Sparky, who took control several months after Raheel’s death, insists they are rooting out the problem. Under his watch, officers play a more active role in supervising drill instructors, something many officials believe is essential to reforming the culture. Renforth, though, insists the problems on Parris Island aren’t cultural. ‘‘This place is such a fishbowl — when someone does something wrong it gets national attention, but it’s not systemic,’’ he says. That said, he allowed, ‘‘I have to make sure it never happens again.’’ Renforth doesn’t explain how he plans to do this, other than to say he wants everyone involved in making Marines to have ‘‘buyin,’’ as he puts it.
Renforth is the epitome of a combat Marine: graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, commander during the first gulf war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, son of a World War II veteran who himself went through boot camp on Parris Island in 1941. This is his first training command, and he says he was surprised that many of his D.I.s were not combat vets. A year ago, in the very beginning of his tenure, Renforth, who has five children, considered reaching out to Ghazala and Massood. He changed his mind. ‘‘I just didn’t feel it was my place,’’ he says.
Tragedies happen. But a vast majority of recruits, he says, make it through boot camp just fine. ‘‘We want them all to transform,’’ Renforth says. ‘‘If they show up with a little ‘want to’ in their hearts, they’ll make it.’’ Renforth has no plans to change the fundamentals of training. ‘‘I believe in the way we make Marines, and I believe in the product,’’ he says. In the end, it’s about instilling ‘‘core values.’’ ‘‘We get kids from all over the nation, and we try to fill them up with values,’’ he says. ‘‘It changes their lives.’’
Janet Reitman is an investigative journalist and contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where she covers politics and national security