How the Death of a Muslim Recruit Revealed a Culture of Brutality in the Marines

Weaver, one of the platoon’s highest-performing recruits, was shaken. During a family picnic just before his graduation, he told his parents that ‘‘crazy stuff’’ happened during training. ‘‘I can’t talk about it here,’’ he said nervously. ‘‘After we get off the island, we can talk about it.’’

Over the next few months, Weaver tried to push what he experienced to the back of his mind, but it was always there. He had believed the Marines was an ethical organization. Then a D.I. bashed his head against a wall for seemingly no reason. And another, after asking if he was a devout Christian, taunted him: ‘‘Say ‘goddamn.’ ’’ That fall, Weaver, then in his last phase of training in Pensacola, Fla., suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts.

Having lost his desire to serve, he received word he was being given an ‘‘other-than-honorable discharge’’ from the Marines. His father, Troy, decided to phone his commanding officer and tell her what he knew. ‘‘The fact is, the abuse would have never been reported had I not stood up and said, ‘Look, you’re not going to give him a bad discharge because of what he went through at Parris Island,’ ’’ Troy told me. ‘‘Those kids weren’t talking.’’ (Weaver was given an other-than-honorable discharge, which he continues to contest.)

On Nov. 5, 2015, Marine officials on Parris Island began an investigation into allegations of abuse based on statements Weaver, Bourmeche and another former recruit from Platoon 3054 had given their commanding officer. Weaver claims the investigators spent only 10 minutes talking to him. Kissoon, through his lawyer, maintains that during this period, Col. Paul Cucinotta, who had replaced Haas as regimental commander in the fall of 2015, refused to brief him on the inquiry as it was unfolding. Internal Marine reports later described the investigation as ‘‘suboptimal.’’

When the investigators submitted their findings to Cucinotta in January 2016, the training regiment’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Lynch, found the evidence persuasive enough to recommend that those involved be ‘‘sat down’’ or suspended from their duties. Cucinotta later claimed he agreed. (‘‘We disagree with Colonel Cucinotta’s testimony,’’ says Kissoon’s attorney, Colby Volkey.) As of February, however, none of those implicated in the investigation had been suspended. Four months after the hazing reports, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix returned to the Third Battalion and assumed the title of senior drill instructor, this time for Platoon 3042, Kilo Company.

Raheel Siddiqui debarked from the bus on the night of March 7, 2016. It was late, and he was tired, unsure of what came next. He moved onto the yellow footprints, through the silver hatches and into the chaos and sleep deprivation that would define his first 96 hours on Parris Island. Four days later, a day traditionally known as Black Friday (even though in this case it was a Saturday), Raheel was assigned to Platoon 3042, arriving with the 60 or so other newly shorn and outfitted recruits at Kilo Company’s three-story red brick barracks. His squad bay, a cavernous room with beige-green walls and floors shiny from excessive scrubbing, was on the top floor.

As the recruits sat crossed-legged, Sergeant Felix stepped forward. ‘‘I am your senior drill instructor,’’ he said with the signature barking cadence D.I.s use to exert their authority, and then began his scripted pledge. He promised to treat them with ‘‘firmness, fairness, dignity and compassion,’’ and informed them that abuse would not be tolerated.

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The Kilo Company barracks, where Raheel Siddiqui lived.

Credit
Robert Clark for The New York Times

There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about that first day. The new recruits were ordered to perform hundreds of burpees. They were told to dangle their rifles off the ends of their pinkies. They were ‘‘dog-piled’’ into a corner and then ordered to run back and forth, over and over. One of Raheel’s platoonmates, who shared with me his detailed recollections on the condition of anonymity, thought he was going to pass out. ‘‘And I was in pretty good shape,’’ he says. ‘‘I remember one kid had a panic attack and started throwing up, and I think he peed himself, too.’’ The officers stood in the back of the squad bay, he says. When they left, ‘‘that’s when the real hell started.’’

On the morning of March 13, less than 24 hours after being picked up by his platoon, Raheel announced to his D.I.s that he’d rather die than continue training. He would jump out the squad-bay window if he had to.

When a recruit threatens suicide, everything stops. At first the D.I.s tried to reason with Raheel: What would his mother think were he to come home without becoming a Marine? ‘‘I’d tell my mother goodbye and kill myself,’’ he said. ‘‘The future does not matter.’’ The Marines took Raheel’s belt and boot laces to prevent him from strangling himself.

Suicide threats are common during the early weeks of boot camp, though how many are serious is unclear. ‘‘Everyone knows saying you’re suicidal is a ticket off Parris Island,’’ Raheel’s platoonmate says. Sickness or broken bones, on the other hand, will get a recruit a long stint in medical, after which they will simply be assigned to another company and start training all over again.

Base officials determined Raheel didn’t qualify for emergency transport to the hospital. Instead, he was ‘‘cross-decked’’: They moved him, still without laces or a belt, to another platoon’s squad bay. Over the next 24 hours, he sat there cross-legged on a mattress in the middle of the room while a ‘‘shadow watch’’ of recruits shined a flashlight on his face and took turns monitoring him around the clock. At some point during this period, Raheel, who had to request permission to leave the mattress to use the bathroom, recanted his suicide threat and said he’d decided he wanted to be a Marine.

The next morning, Felix escorted Raheel to recruit liaison services, an office set up to ascertain if recruits had enlisted fraudulently (such as by failing to disclose a history of suicidal ideation), and to motivate struggling recruits to return to training. Drill instructors who accompany recruits to these sessions usually sit in a waiting area, but Felix ‘‘stood about 10 feet away,’’ according to the report, while Raheel provided what was referred to as a ‘‘voluntary statement’’ retracting his threat. ‘‘This recruit thought it was the only way to quit,’’ he said. ‘‘This recruit never meant that and regrets it.’’ The base’s mental-health unit deemed him to be at a ‘‘low risk for harm,’’ and Raheel went back to training.

It would be noted later, in the Marines’ report, that Raheel, shortly after saying he wanted to kill himself, confided to the military police who were going to escort him to the hospital that he ‘‘could not handle’’ being hit by his drill instructors. The allegation was noted and disregarded several times by what appeared to be several officials.

In reviewing the incidents of that week, the Marines made no mention of the four days after Raheel resumed training. His platoonmate, though, recalls them as torture. As one report noted, Platoon 3042’s senior drill instructor ‘‘taught his subordinate drill instructors that in order to be successful at training recruits, they needed to ‘hate recruits.’ ’’ They were called ‘‘bitches,’’ ‘‘faggots,’’ ‘‘maggots,’’ ‘‘little bitches,’’ ‘‘pussies’’ and ‘‘retards.’’ A Russian-born recruit was called ‘‘the Russian,’’ or ‘‘the cosmonaut,’’ and was asked if he was a Russian spy. Raheel was called a terrorist. Felix asked on one occasion if he needed his turban.

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A Parris Island drill instructor shouting at a recruit.

Credit
Robert Clark for The New York Times

Raheel’s platoonmate didn’t understand why Raheel had joined the Marines. Orders seemed to confound him. Rather than simply following them, he thought about what he was asked. ‘‘Like a normal person,’’ the platoonmate says. ‘‘It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not how they wanted it. It wasn’t the Marine way of doing things.’’ This earned Raheel, who always ‘‘looked like a scared animal,’’ as his platoonmate says, undue attention from the D.I.s. ‘‘Anything that’s not masculine — if you’re not six feet tall and built like a football player — that’s not what they want. They want people who are the definition of Marines. Anyone else, you have to prove yourself.’’

Once, the platoonmate recalls, Felix stuffed a recruit in a footlocker. Another time, he made a recruit eat nothing but Jell-O and mashed potatoes for a few days, and threatened that if he didn’t improve, he’d have to stuff him in a locker, too. Choking recruits until they were gasping for air was common. Some of the D.I.s, the platoonmate suspected, were almost as terrified of their senior D.I. as the recruits were. One drill instructor, he recalled, became so ill that he projectile-vomited all over the squad bay while simultaneously yelling at the recruits after he himself had been screamed at by Felix moments before. ‘‘We never knew if it was blood or Gatorade, but he’s vomiting this red stuff while screaming, and we were like, What is going on?’’

On March 17, Platoon 3042 received instruction on Marine Corps mixed-martial-arts punching techniques. According to the Marines’ report, recruits in Lima Company were instructed to throw a ‘‘flurry of punches’’ as hard as they could, and not to listen to their instructors’ directions but instead ‘‘just to keep punching.’’ It was routine, recruits later said, for their drill instructors to pair bigger or stronger recruits against the weaker or poorly performing recruits. During the March 17 drill, recruits were punched repeatedly in unprotected parts of their body, including their jaws. One sustained two broken ribs. The abuse, according to the report, caused one recruit ‘‘to cry during the event.’’ The platoonmate believed one of the targeted recruits was Raheel, but he can’t be sure. ‘‘It’s really all a blur,’’ he says. It was only Day 4. Many recruits didn’t even know one another’s names. Terror caused them to avoid making eye contact. ‘‘Lots of stuff happened while we slept,’’ he says. ‘‘Or in the dark.’’

At around 2 a.m. on March 18, Raheel woke up his bunkmate. He was in pain, he said. We’re all in pain, the other recruit told him. Two hours later, the recruits awoke and prepared to sound off before leaving for chow. Raheel pointed to his throat and silently mouthed words. When two D.I.s started yelling at him, Raheel handed one of them a note. ‘‘This recruit has to go to medical. This recruit’s throat has been swollen for three days and is getting worse,’’ it said. ‘‘This recruit also coughed blood a few times last night. And this recruit completely lost his voice and can barely whisper. This recruit’s whole neck is in a lot of pain.’’

A D.I. told Raheel they would deal with the matter after breakfast. He sat silently through the meal, zombielike. Upon returning to the barracks, the platoon set about cleaning, and Raheel was called to the front of the squad bay. He was supposed to fill out a form so he could go to the medical unit. He stood before Felix but failed to greet him properly, perhaps because he couldn’t speak. His silence seemed to enrage the senior drill instructor. ‘‘Get back!’’ he shouted. Raheel ran 144 feet across the squad bay from one end to the other. ‘‘Siddiqui, run!’’ Felix continued. ‘‘Get back! Run!’’

His platoonmate, who had been quietly making his bed and trying to stay out of the D.I.s’ line of sight, watched Raheel running back and forth. Suddenly Raheel grabbed his throat, crying, and fell to the floor. Some recruits thought he was faking. ‘‘I don’t know if he did it willingly, I don’t know if he was just exhausted, but he dropped,’’ the platoonmate says.

‘‘Get up, Siddiqui!’’ Felix shouted. ‘‘I know you’re faking. Get up!’’

At this point, reports differ. Raheel appeared to be unconscious. A D.I. claimed he rubbed his knuckles across Raheel’s sternum to revive him. Other recruits and drill instructors say that never happened. The platoonmate I interviewed recalls seeing Raheel, on the floor, clutching his throat. Leaning over, Felix slapped him across the face. Five feet away, Raheel’s platoonmate thought at first the D.I. was ‘‘acting like an emergency responder,’’ trying to revive him. But then he slapped him again, so hard that the sound echoed across the squad bay.

‘‘And Siddiqui gets up, and he starts dead sprinting, which I thought was a logical thing to do: This is boot camp, he’s running away,’’ his platoonmate says. But he was running too fast. ‘‘He is literally sprinting the fastest I’d ever seen anyone sprint,’’ he says. Slowly it dawned on him what Raheel was about to do. ‘‘We were all still cleaning, kind of dispersed around the squad bay.’’ The doors, he recalls, were open. ‘‘And he straight-up jumped.’’

He was alive when he landed, his body bouncing off the steel handrails and onto the concrete steps. A Marine passing by phoned 9-1-1. The other D.I.s herded the platoon into the bathroom and instructed the recruits to face the wall. They heard the ambulance show up and depart. Then they were herded to physical training as if it were any other morning and told not to talk about what they’d seen. ‘‘They tried to put the blame on him,’’ the platoonmate says — like, ‘‘ ‘We were trying to train him, and he took it wrong.’ But I mean, what the hell are we doing here? I just watched a kid kill himself. I’m not here for that. We were all traumatized.’’

An air ambulance was requested to take Raheel to a hospital in Savannah, Ga., 40 miles away, but the request was denied because of heavy fog. A second air lift was scuttled, and so Marines drove him to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where after an hour of sustained effort in the emergency room, doctors decided Raheel needed higher-level care. Three hours after his fall, he arrived at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. It was too late: At 10:06, after more than an hour of attempts to save his life, Raheel was pronounced dead.

The following day, an autopsy was performed at the hospital. The medical examiner concluded that Raheel died of blunt-force trauma sustained during his fall. But the autopsy report, details of which were shown to me by the Siddiqui family, also found evidence of petechial hemorrhaging, which can be caused by anything from heavy coughing to vomiting or asphyxiation and strangulation. Several days later, J. Edward Allen, the Beaufort County coroner, wrote a final autopsy report concluding that ‘‘in light of the history provided and the autopsy findings,’’ Raheel had committed suicide.

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