Lawmakers on Tuesday complained that the military has not done enough to improve diversity in the leadership of the armed forces or to put a stop to racial harassment and abuse of minorities by their service members.
Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat whose nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, committed suicide in Afghanistan in April after alleged physical harassment from other Marines, angrily told representatives of the Defense Department and military services at a joint congressional forum that the armed forces have failed to take hazing seriously.
“Any claims that hazing incidents are isolated are unfounded,” said Chu, who complained that the services do not adequately punish violators.
“The feeling that hazing a necessary part of military life is very, very entrenched,” Chu said.
Mike Applegate, director of manpower plans and policies for the Marine Corps, told Chu that the service intends to stamp out hazing “wherever it exists.”
“I just don’t believe you,” replied Chu.
In April, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission appointed by Congress issued a report finding that minorities are underrepresented in the leadership of the armed forces.
Lawmakers expressed disappointment at the progress in implementing the commission's recommendations.
“It sounds like there’s been a lot of talk, but not enough action,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who presided over Tuesday’s forum, held by the Congressional Black Caucus, Asian Pacific Caucus and Hispanic Caucus.
In many cases, Cummings said, the services have placed recommendations on standby, with more than half of the recommendations still under review or in the process of being implemented.
In Lew’s case, one Marine has pleaded guilty to assault for punching and kicking Lew, while two others have been acquitted on charges related to the alleged hazing, which according to a prosecutor took place after Lew fell asleep on guard duty.
Clarence Johnson, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, told lawmakers that the Pentagon is combatting hazing and regrets “recent incidents that may call that commitment into question.”
“The department’s policy prohibiting hazing is unambiguous,” he added. “It is contrary to good order and discipline and is unacceptable behavior.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a member of the diversity commission, told the forum that the deaths of Lew and Army Pvt. Danny Chen, who also committed suicide in Afghanistan last year after suffering alleged abuse, should have been prevented by superiors.
“The leaders in their respective chain of command who made conditions unbearable for these two men must be held accountable,” Taguba said.
“We have toxic leaders,” added Taguba, who led the investigation into the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. “We have toxic generals.”
Taguba said the term hazing does not adequately convey the seriousness of the problem.“The term hazing must be expunged and given a more precise term and definition similar to sexual harassment, physical and emotional mistreatment and assault,” he said.