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Marine Corps ousts Parris Island recruit training commander after death of recruit

Col. Paul D. Cucinotta, the commanding officer of the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island, S.C., is shown after a motivational run at the recruit depot on April 14. He was removed from his job on Monday, nearly four months after the mysterious death of a Marine recruit. (Lance Cpl. Aaron Bolser/Marine Corps)
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The second-highest ranking officer at the Marine Corps’ iconic Parris Island recruit training depot in South Carolina was removed from his job Monday, nearly four months after the death of a recruit under his supervision.

Col. Paul D. Cucinotta was relieved of command by Maj. Gen. James W. Lukeman, the top general in Training and Education Command at Quantico, Va. Cucinotta, as commanding officer of the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island, was responsible for overseeing all aspects of recruit training at the depot and was the second-highest ranking officer on the base to Brig. Gen. Terry V. Williams.

Cucinotta was removed due to a “loss of trust and confidence in his ability to serve in that position,” according to a letter sent Monday by the Marine Corps to Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who inquired into the March 18 death of Raheel Siddiqui, 20, a Pakistani-American Marine recruit from her district.

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“This action was based on facts made known to the Commanding General, Training and Education Command relating to instances where policies and procedures were not followed,” said the letter, signed by Brig. Gen. David J. Furness, the legislative assistant to Gen. Robert B. Neller, the service’s top officer. The letter did not get more specific.

The Marine Corps confirmed Cucinotta’s removal Monday night after it was reported by The Washington Post. Marine officials said in a news release that Lukeman made his decision based on information that emerged “during the course of an ongoing command investigation,” without elaborating.

“The Marine Corps holds all Marines, especially commanders, to a very high set of standards,” the news release said. “This is particularly pertinent at the Recruit Depots where Marine leaders instill recruits with our ethos and core values of honor, courage and commitment. Toward this end, the Marine Corps remains committed to ensuring the utmost trust and confidence in the leaders assigned.”

Siddiqui arrived at the depot March 7, and fell 40 feet to his death after running out of a squad bay and jumping over a stairwell railing, family members have said. He had just been revived after fainting during a military drill. A lawyer representing the Siddiqui family, Nabih Ayad, told the Detroit Free Press that an instructor “smacked” Siddiqui to revive him. He had threatened to commit suicide early in recruit training, but was returned to training after committing to becoming a Marine, family members said.

Attempts to reach the Siddiqui family and their lawyer were not successful Monday evening.

Dingell has questioned whether Siddiqui was hazed or bullied, and called in April for Neller to disclose additional information about the case. The Marines had declined to do so until Monday, citing open investigations by both the service and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).

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NCIS has said that no foul play was involved in Siddiqui’s death. Furness declined to address in his letter to Dingell whether hazing was involved.

“Regarding your concern that hazing may have played a role in Private Siddiqui’s death, it would be premature to comment given that the investigations are still ongoing,” Furness wrote. “I can assure you that any indication of hazing will be carefully investigated.”

Dingell said in a statement that the Siddiqui family deserves answers about the death of a “class valedictorian who was loved by all who knew him.” The investigations must be completed in a thorough and unbiased manner, she said, but they also must be completed as soon as possible to bring closure to Siddiqui’s family.

“I will continue working to ensure the Siddiqui family has the resources and support they need during the ongoing investigations and beyond, and will remain fully engaged with the Marine Corps and all stakeholders to ensure we have a clear picture of what happened, including the actions that led to the June 6th discharge of a commanding officer at Parris Island,” Dingell said. “This is the very least Private Siddiqui’s family and our community deserve.”

Cucinotta fired his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, on March 31, less than two weeks after Siddiqui’s death. That removal, first reported that day by the independent Marine Corps Times, occurred after a Marine Corps inspector general investigation substantiated allegations of unspecified misconduct against Kissoon, but is unrelated to the Siddiqui case, Furness wrote Monday in his letter to Dingell.

Marine Corps Times reported in March that Cucinotta received the results of that investigation Feb. 29, but did not decide to remove from Kissoon from his job until one day before Siddiqui’s death, citing a service spokesman.

Cucinotta arrived at Parris Island last fall, and is a field artillery officer who has been in the Marine Corps since 1992, according to his professional biography. From 2005 to 2008, he served as the Marine Corps’ exchange officer to the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment with headquarters at Fort Benning, Ga., deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. More recently, he served beginning in 2014 as the assistant chief of staff for operations at the deployed headquarters of Marine Forces Central Command in Bahrain.

The top officer at Parris Island, Williams, is expected to rotate to another job soon. Marine officials said last month that his departure from Parris Island has nothing to do with the ongoing investigations. He will become the assistant deputy commandant for installations and logistics at the Pentagon, which is considered a more senior position.

This story was updated Tuesday morning with comments from Rep. Dingell.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect first name for Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon.

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