Following some highly-publicized hazing-related deaths and injuries in the nation’s armed services, some members of Congress are pressing the military to do more to end a culture that they say allows servicemembers to be mistreated by their colleagues.
Uniformed officials told lawmakers they are moving aggressively to stamp out the problem, and that they’ve already made “night-and-day” headway compared with the practices that permeated the military a generation ago.
“We have put several corrective measures into place,” said Rick West, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. “We are constantly talking about this.”
The House Armed Services Committee heard from the top enlisted officials from all five of the military services Thursday. Each testified to a zero-tolerance stance toward hazing in their services.
“Hazing is a war-fighting issue, destroying the confidence and trust Marines place in each other and in our leadership and undermining unit cohesion and combat readiness,” said Michael Barrett, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. “It does not promote loyalty, does not build espirit de corps and does not prepare Marines for combat.”
Military officials say most of the hazing cases they track are rites-of-passage type incidents connected to a promotion or another significant event. Fraternity-style initiation acts are still commonplace, but they’re prohibited by all the services when they go beyond the bounds of voluntary team building exercises and extend into inflicting pain, forced drinking or demeaning or humiliating a servicemember.
Several recent incidents appear to have been in another category altogether. The Navy discharged eight sailors from the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard in a case where they were accused of assaulting and choking a shipmate. Army Private Danny Chen took his own life in Afghanistan last year after allegedly being beaten by fellow soldiers and harassed because of his race. Earlier in the year, a young Marine in Afghanistan committed suicide after enduring severe physical abuse.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) has a very personal connection to the issue. That Marine was her nephew, Lance Corporal Harry Lew. He took his life shortly after an episode in which she says he was subjected to hours of physical abuse when his sergeant caught him sleeping on duty.
“They took it upon themselves to administer justice and corrective training,” she said. “They berated him, ordered him to dig a foxhole, to do push-ups and crunches with his full body armor and a 25-pound sandbag. They stomped on his back, kicked him, and poured the full contents of a sandbag into his mouth and onto his face. It lasted a full three hours and 20 minutes. Twenty-two minutes after it stopped, Harry climbed into a foxhole and killed himself with his own gun. He was 21 years old.”
Chu said following her nephew’s case closely led her to the conclusion that there’s a disconnect between the hazing policies military leaders prescribe and how hazing is actually viewed in the military ranks. She claims the gap between how the outside world views hazing and how it’s seen in the military is miles wide.
“The outside is horrified. Meanwhile, the top brass says, ‘We prohibit hazing and these are isolated incidents, we are perfect,'” she said. “But the rank and file soldiers tend to think hazing is necessary to keep soldiers strong. They think it’s better to have one person die, even at the hand of his fellow servicemembers, than to compromise the unit’s safety. Why do I know people say this? Because I heard them say it at the jury trial over and over again as a defense for those marines. I saw it in the letters to the editor. I saw it in the blogs. This is the attitude in the military, and it’s pervasive.”
Rep Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who served in both the Army and Marine Corps, said Congress is right to be concerned about hazing, but he thinks the problems are more fundamental.
“At the end of the day, this is a failure of small unit leadership,” he said. “When you’re in a small ground combat team, there’s no stronger interdependent bond. Somebody who’s never been in that situation will never be able to realize how difficult that is when you’ve been rejected by that team, but you’re still there. You’re there. If we think we can solve this by just getting rid of physical hazing and we don’t deal with the psychological component of this, we’ve really missed the mark. This about much more than hazing. This is really about a failure of leadership at the most basic levels.”
Raymond Chandler, the Sergeant Major of the Army, disputed the notion that hazing is pervasive in the military. But he said it’s also an issue his service takes it extremely seriously.
“I’m personally appalled and disgusted by the actions of soldiers who do this,” he said. “When a young man or woman is hazed, it’s not corrective training. It’s abuse. And there’s a significant difference. From the Army perspective, from my perspective, this is not something we’re going to tolerate. I am committed, along with the Army leadership to solve this problem. It is against who we say we are. And if any one of our brothers or sisters dies because of our own actions, that is not okay with me. I am committed to this.”
Barrett, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, had much the same message.
“We are taking an aggressive stance toward all the disgusting societal issues that plague our services, and I’m not just talking about hazing,” he said. “It’s drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, criminal mischief, sexual misconduct, hazing and suicide. I refer to them as the insurgents inside of our wire, and it affects all our services. We are constantly taking and making assessments, and we’re going after problems wherever we see problems.”
With regard to the specific case of Lance Corporal Harry Lew, Barrett said, “What happened to Lance Corporal Lew is disgusting. The small unit leadership that the congressman was speaking of, he’s absolutely spot-on. The small-unit leadership failed. I wish I could take it all back. We should have done better.”
The Marine Corps is trying to do better. Last month, Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, issued new guidance emphasizing the zero-tolerance policy, and the Marines will begin tracking hazing cases through its internal criminal investigative system.
The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard each do at least some tracking already, but they all face a common challenge in assembling that data: There’s no single offense called “hazing” in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Because of that, any statistics compiled thus fat should be approached with caution, military leaders said. Still, some numbers have emerged since various measures to track hazing began:
The Air Force has flagged 21 hazing incidents since 2005, with only one being substantiated by commanders.
The Navy identified 46 reported cases since 2009, 20 of which led to disciplinary action.
The Army has labeled 71 cases as hazing since 2006, involving 139 alleged perpetrators, and 65 of those soldiers were punished in some way.
The Coast Guard has had nine hazing-related courts martial since 2009. Seven were from one unit.