Editor’s Note: The following piece is one man’s opinion, and in no way reflects the views of ConnectingVets.com. Jake Hughes was a proud Drill Sergeant at Fort Benning, Georgia.
By Jake Hughes
The mere name conjures up scary images. Visions of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman slapping poor Private Joker, and choking out Private Pyle. The very sign outside the post is ominous, with its simple assertion, “We Make Marines.”
Even I, a former US Army Drill Sergeant, found myself wondering what goes on in those halls. The few videos you can find on YouTube and in documentaries paint a somber picture: intimidating Drill Instructors, or DI’s, all but frothing at the mouth and screaming unintelligibly at some poor recruit, with insanely high standards and the iconic “knife hand” (which the Army also uses, thank you very much). All of it makes Marine Boot Camp seem impossible to survive, a Herculean task only for the most dogged contenders.
In reality, while the standards are high, Marine Boot Camp is not the leviathan it used to be. The same can be said for basic training of all branches. These days, there are strict rules concerning treatment of recruits. We (DS, DI, RDC, and camp counselors – or whatever the Air Force and Coast Guard call them) are not allowed to lay a hand on a trainee. We can’t single out soldiers based on race, color, or creed. Hell, we can’t even use “excessive swearing.” And certain commanders and 1st Sergeants wanted nothing more than to charge a DS/DI with abusing Joe, because it made them look good. “Hat Hunters” we used to call them. All this forced us to be creative with our training techniques and not rely on abuse or fear to motivate privates. In effect, it made us better at our jobs.
Knowing this, it shocked me when I heard about Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Felix, the DI who was recently found guilty of hazing a group of his recruits. I wasn’t shocked he was abusive, but it was the extent of his abuse that got to me. Calling Muslim recruits “terrorists,” forcing one to simulate beheading another trainee while shouting, “Allahu Akbar.” Physically assaulting trainees, punching, kicking, and choking them. Ordering them to lay on the floor while he walked on them. Throwing a recruit into a dryer and turning it on until he renounced his faith.
That one really chaps my backside, not just as a DS, but as a man of faith. And it wasn’t just him. His entire company was complicit in this abuse. It got so bad that one poor recruit, Raheel Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American, committed suicide, although Felix has been cleared of any charges relating to Siddiqui’s death.
Felix was found guilty of abuse and sentenced to 10 years in the brig along with reduction in rank to E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a Dishonorable Discharge. This has raised some eyebrows among the Marines I have talked to.
“If he deserves jail time for that, (Former Sergeant Bowe) Bergdahl deserves jail time too,” said one Marine. And while he may have a point about the Bergdahl case, it seems the issue is the extent of the punishment. Ten years for abuse? Others say he deserves it.
“He’s an insult to my Corps,” said another Marine. And I agree with him.
You see, as a DS or a DI, you have a special task and mission. You are the first introduction to the Army/Corps that a recruit has. You are meant to embody the core values of your branch and the military as a whole. You don’t just enforce the standard: you are the standard. You are the one that recruit will remember, for better or worse, for the rest of his life. So when a DI takes it upon himself to abuse his power, and physically or mentally harm his trainees, it boils my blood. I spent two years turning civilians into highly-trained soldiers. And guess what, bucko? I was able to do it without laying a hand on a troop. Oh, I cussed, screamed, called names, and threw stuff around, but I never harmed a private, and there are some real soldiers that I would trust my life to in battle because of it.
And you know what makes this worse? I have little to no doubt that someone in the comments is going to go all “Back in MY Corps” on me. “Oh, everyone gets abused in boot camp! It made us tough! My DI stabbed me in the face with a red-hot poker, and I turned out fine!”
Well guess what, tough guy? Just because it happened to you, that doesn’t make it right. A true leader is able to break down, build up, and demand high performance without stuffing anyone into a damn running dryer. A real NCO can influence, teach, and motivate without choking out a trainee and punching him in the face.
I know I’m getting a bit heated here, but this irks me something fierce. The acts of GySgt Felix are reprehensible, unforgivable, and an embarrassment to every thing I have been told the Marine Corps stands for. There’s no honor in abuse, the acts were that of a coward, and any commitment on his part is moot. If you look at what GySgt Felix did to those troops and see nothing wrong, then buddy, you need to get your head checked.
Bottom line, in my humble opinion, GySgt Felix… well, now it’s Pvt Felix, went way over every line I can think of and deserves every punishment he got. May he serve as an example to any other DS/DI/RDC that demanding the best doesn’t require you acting your worst.