PARRIS ISLAND – Multiple investigations into the death of a Muslim military recruit at the Marine Corps’ fabled Parris Island training center have uncovered a troubling pattern of mistreatment, and officials are responding with a series of policy changes designed to improve accountability and prevent future missteps.
Twenty Marines could face administrative punishment or potentially more consequential legal proceedings, a military official told Marine Corps Times. Two investigations were launched in March after Raheel Siddiqui, 20, fell nearly 40 feet to his death from a barracks stairwell just days after arriving at Parris Island, which is located along the South Carolina coast. A third investigation, which was ongoing at the time of Siddiqui’s death, looked into allegations of hazing in 2015. It was ultimately combined with the other two.
The incident has prompted questions about the way recruits are treated and disciplined as they train to become Marines – especially minority recruits. One congresswoman has spent months pressing top Marine leaders to prove that Siddiqui’s Muslim faith did not lead to any mistreatment during his time at Parris Island. It followed years of immense pressure from members of Congress about how military leaders are tackling the issue of hazing in the ranks.
The problem is very real. The Marine Corps investigated 377 alleged hazing incidents between January 2012 and June 2015, substantiating about a third of the cases. The data was obtained by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Investigators determined that one of Siddiqui’s drill instructors had been accused of hazing and assaulting a Muslim recruit the year prior, according to an official familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “While under the influence of alcohol, [the drill instructor] ordered a Muslim recruit to get inside a commercial clothes dryer and then turned the dryer on several times while commenting on the recruit’s religion,” the official said.
A new policy change will prohibit any Marine from continuing to train recruits if he or she is under investigation. Perhaps more significant, though, is the end of the age-old practice of assigning drill instructors to specific billets based on their time at recruit depots. With the exception of the senior drill instructor billet, the Marine Corps is ceasing “any practice that is based on differentiating between drill instructors of differing experience levels,” officials said.
The policy changes are effective immediately and will apply to Parris Island and the Marine Corps’ West Coast recruit training facility in San Diego.
Though Siddiqui’s autopsy concluded that his “manner of death is best deemed suicide,” the official said, investigators found evidence of systematic hazing and abuse allegedly committed by personnel who run the facility. There was also a “noted absence of oversight and supervision at various levels of command,” the official added.
“We mourn the loss of Recruit Siddiqui,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said in a written statement released to Marine Corps Times, “and we will take every step necessary to prevent tragic events like this from happening again.”
Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American from Michigan, arrived at Parris Island on March 7. Six days later, he told his drill instructors that he wanted to kill himself but later changed his mind, according to Marine officials.
Over the next 24 hours, Siddiqui was monitored before being interviewed and examined by military medical personnel. First, he first spoke with someone from Parris Island’s Recruiter Liaison Service, which falls under Marine Corps Recruiting Command. Next, he was examined by a psychologist at the facility’s mental health unit, which falls under the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
After those examinations, it was recommended that Siddiqui “return to training,” the official said.
On March 18, four days after Siddiqui returned to training, he wrote a note to his drill instructor requesting medical attention for a sore throat. After breakfast, a drill instructor summoned the recruit to the front of the squad bay. Siddiqui was forced to run to one end of the squad bay and back several times before he fell crying to the floor while clutching his throat, the Marine official said.
When he appeared unresponsive, the drill instructor “verbally ordered” Siddiqui to get back to his feet before “forcefully slapping” him in the face, the official said. The Marine Corps’ Recruit Training Order prohibits drill instructors from striking recruits.
After the slap, Siddiqui got to his feet and ran the length of his third-floor squad bay to the stairwell outside and vaulted over the railing. He was pronounced dead several hours later at the Medical University of South Carolina. According to the autopsy, Siddiqui suffered “blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and torso.”
Investigators’ questions remain about whether Siddiqui was examined thoroughly enough before being sent back to train just a day after threatening suicide. The investigation found “anomalies in the manner in which [his] threat of suicide was handled in part due to inconsistent processes and procedures,” the Marine official said.
Apart from the congressional inquiry, Siddiqui’s death sparked a series of firings and suspensions at Parris Island, where each year nearly 20,000 young men and women train to become full-fledged Marines.
Investigators found that the procedures for recording abuse allegations were unclear, and that commanders were unaware of their roles within the investigative process. Siddiqui’s recruit training company in particular suffered from “inadequate supervision by leadership … which resulted in a permissive atmosphere for hazing and abuse to occur,” the official said.
Not even the drill instructors were immune from the bad treatment. Referred to as “hat hazing,” investigators found that some of the more seasoned drill instructors within Parris Island’s 3rd Recruit Training Battalion were mistreating the junior DIs in their platoons.
Now the Marine Corps will no longer assign drill instructors to specific billets – known as “heavy hats,” “knowledge hats” and “fourth hats” – based on their experience levels.
To date, the Marine Corps has publicly identified two leaders who were fired as a result of the Siddiqui investigations: Col. Paul Cucinotta, commander of the Recruit Training Regiment; and Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Deabreu, the training regiment’s senior enlisted leader. Both were relieved of duty June 6.
Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, Parris’ Island commanding general when Siddiqui was there, was initially slated to take a prestigious assignment leading logistics Marines deployed throughout the Asia-Pacific regions. Instead, he was moved into a job at the Pentagon for reasons that have not been made clear.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion’s commanding officer, was fired on March 31 over misconduct allegations. A spokesman for Parris Island has stressed that Kissoon’s relief was not related to Siddiqui’s death.
Parris Island’s new commander, Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, took command of the facility in June. A career infantry officer, he has pledged that Marines in his charge will “follow the rules” and “do things right.”
Maj. Gen. James Lukeman, head of the Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command, has taken actions “to prevent the recurrence of issues identified in the investigations,” said Maj. Christian Devine, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. The new measures include:
– An increased officer presence and supervision of training.
– The mandatory suspension of any Marine who’s being investigated for recruit abuse, hazing or maltreatment.
– Better visibility and reviews of investigations above the regimental level.
– The modification of the assignment processes for drill instructors and officers.
– The cessation of any practice that is based on differentiating between drill instructors of differing experience levels, to include enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for “hat-hazing” or hazing of any kind among drill instructors.
– A review and possible revisions to mental health processes and procedures, to include suicide prevention protocols.
These measures are necessary for the service, as the Corps must promise to take care of the men and women who want to become Marines, said Neller, the service’s top general. “We pledge to train them with firmness, fairness, dignity and compassion,” the commandant said. “Simply stated, the manner in which we make Marines is as important as the finished product.”