The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Following a Marine recruit’s death, a culture of hazing is exposed on a storied base

Raheel Siddiqui, 20, died at the Marine Corps recruit depot at Parris Island, S.C., while in initial training. (Photo courtesy of the Siddiqui family)

Minutes before Raheel Siddiqui, a Muslim Marine recruit, jumped to his death during the early phases of boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he was hazed and struck by his drill instructor, Marine Corps officials said Thursday.

In addition to acknowledging Siddiqui’s abuse, the Marines also said Thursday that the inquiry into his March 18 suicide was just one of several investigations that have slowly expanded in recent months, embroiling 20 individuals on one of the Marine Corps’ most storied training bases.

15 Marine drill instructors face allegations of hazing and assault at Parris Island

According to Marine Corps officials, the entirety of the investigations have focused on just one of Parris Island’s four recruit battalions: the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. The Marines have since identified 20 individuals involved with the recruit training process who could be punished — some with criminal charges — for their roles in promoting a toxic training environment, one that consistently turned a blind eye to hazing and implicitly condoned poor leadership.

Siddiqui, 20, a Pakistani American Taylor, Mich., arrived at Parris Island on March 7 and had been with his training company, known as Kilo Company, for only a day when he reported on March 13 that he wanted to commit suicide, Marine officials said.

The first week or so of Marine boot camp is known as “forming” and involves recruits going through a series of medical evaluations and uniform issues before training. After forming, recruits are “picked up” by their drill instructors in an infamous ceremony that introduces recruits to their company and the intensity of recruit training. Marine boot camp companies often have nicknames, and Kilo Company is known as “Killer Kilo,” a name that its recruits and cadre of drill instructors are often quick to brag about.

Siddiqui was set to speak to the mental-health unit on base and a recruit liaison service the day following his claims but recanted them before speaking to the unit. The next day, Siddiqui was evaluated by the mental-health unit and returned to training. According to officials, however, Siddiqui claimed sometime before returning to training that he had been abused by his drill instructors — a claim that was ignored by higher-ups in Kilo Company.

On March 18, Siddiqui was given “improper incentive training,” officials said. “Incentive training” is an Orwellian term for on-the-spot physical training that often takes place at a designated spot in the front of the barracks and is used as punishment for an individual or groups of recruits. During the training, recruits are told to do push-ups and other calisthenics in place.

Siddiqui told his drill instructor that his throat hurt, officials said, and after failing to respond to the drill instructor, he fell to the floor, apparently in pain. When Siddiqui continued to not respond, the drill instructor “forcefully” slapped him between one and three times. Siddiqui then ran down the length of the barracks and vaulted a railing, falling to his death. It is against training regulations for a drill instructor to strike a recruit.

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

The drill instructor who officials say hazed and slapped Siddiqui had already been under investigation in November in connection with the ill treatment of another Muslim recruit and for reportedly consuming alcohol around the trainees. The Wall Street Journal reported that the instructor was accused of putting the Muslim recruit in a dryer. According to officials, “poor investigative” techniques led the command to discount the allegations, and the drill instructor was allowed to continue his duties. The Marine Corps would not identify the drill instructor, but he is no longer training recruits.

Other officers already removed from their jobs include Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, who oversaw the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, and his superior, Col. Paul D. Cucinotta. Kissoon was relieved of his command March 31, after Siddiqui’s death, while Cucinotta was removed in June. Cucinotta’s top enlisted adviser, Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Deabreu, was also removed.

“When America’s men and women commit to becoming Marines, we make a promise to them. We pledge to train them with firmness, fairness, dignity and compassion,” Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said in a statement. “Simply stated, the manner in which we make Marines is as important as the finished product.”

“Recruit training is, and will remain, physically and mentally challenging so that we can produce disciplined, ethical, basically-trained Marines,” he added.

[Marine Corps sidelines Parris Island drill instructors after death of recruit]

According to a statement by the Marine Corps, the Marines’ training command is taking a number of preliminary steps to try to mitigate the possibility of future incidents, including adding more officers to supervise training, a review of mental-health processes and procedures, and a more thorough investigative process. Officials also said drill instructors would no longer be assigned to most billets based on seniority to prevent them from hazing one another.

Like many institutions within the Marine Corps, recruit training is steeped in tradition and has always prided itself in being the most difficult basic training of the four branches.

“Today’s announcement by the Marine Corps is a first step in ensuring the family of Private Raheel Siddiqui receives the answers they deserve and that the Marine Corps is addressing the serious issues that led to this tragedy,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who had pushed the Marine Corps for more transparency following Siddiqui’s death and has introduced a bill to ease hazing in the ranks. “This is the very least the Siddiqui family — and the thousands of families across our country whose children serve in uniform — deserve.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.