SAN DIEGO —The Marines say changes in the way they train recruits and their notoriously hard-nosed drill instructors have led to fewer incidents of drill instructor misconduct, officials told the Union-Tribune.

Their statement about training followed an Oct. 5 Washington Post report revealing that more than 20 Marines at the San Diego boot camp have been disciplined for misconduct since 2017, including cases of physical attacks and racist and homophobic slurs. The story also was published in the Union-Tribune.

According to the Washington Post, the Marines punished one drill instructor who, in the fall of 2017, used a staple gun on a recruit and ordered another recruit to eat part of a pine cone. That drill instructor received administrative punishment and left the Marines in September 2018.

The incident was one of several at the two Marine Corps boot camps in recent years, including a case where a Marine recruit fell to his death after being struck by a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Every year almost 18,000 young Marines graduate from Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. MCRD San Diego is all-male; female Marine recruits are trained at Parris Island.

Marine Capt. Martin Harris, an MCRD San Diego spokesman, said that from August 2018 through September 2019, there was a 64 percent decrease in substantiated allegations of drill instructor misconduct. While Harris did not go into detail about those cases, most were minor and did not warrant significant punishment, he said.

Harris said estimated the number of cases over those 13 months were between 20 and 40.

The Marines invited the Union-Tribune to visit the San Diego depot's Chief of Staff, Col. Daniel Kazmier, to talk about training recruits and drill instructors.

Kazmier enlisted in the Marines in 1980 as an avionics technician and did two tours as a drill instructor before being commissioned as an infantry officer in 1992. He went to law school in 1997 and served as a Judge Advocate General, a military attorney.

In 2017, Kazmier assumed command of Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and in June took his current job as chief of staff. He was the commanding officer when the misconduct detailed in the Post's story occurred.

According to Kazmier, in 2017 the Marines strengthened their reporting requirements for hazing. That led to a corresponding spike in reports, he said.

Those requirements and other changes, such as a new “four-phase model” for recruit training, have led to fewer punishable incidents, he said.

“The good news is that overall … the number of incidents that were serious enough to merit punishment of any kind have been drastically reduced,” he said. “That tells me that the professionalism of the force and their understanding of what leadership should look like has improved a lot because of the four-phase model.”

The service added a fourth phase of training for recruits in October 2017. In that phase, recruits receive lighter treatment from drill instructors in the final weeks of training.

It allows more time for drill instructors to engage in “core values guidance discussions,” he said.

“They learn the ground rules for being confident young Marines,” he said. “That includes (rules about) hazing.”

Marine recruits already were trained about hazing before reporting to boot camp, Kazmier said.

“They know they can't be subject to hazing and, if they are, they should report it,” he said.

The Marine Corps also adjusted training for drill instructors in 2017, Kazmier said, a process that is ongoing.

” Every incident we've had — and they're rare — has caused us to reevaluate how we do business.”

The incidents include those reported in San Diego and the 2016 hazing death of Pvt. Raheel Siddiqui, who died at Parris Island from a 40-foot fall after being tormented by a drill instructor who targeted him due to his Muslim faith.

That drill instructor, former Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, was sentenced to 10 years in prison at a 2017 court-martial.

Along with the switch to the four-phase recruit training schedule came a shift in drill instructors' roles and tighter supervision of them, according to a depot statement.

“A focus on small-unit leadership … created an intentional shift in the drill instructor's role from a stern disciplinarian early in training to a firm coach and mentor later in training,” the written statement said.

“More engaged officer and senior staff non-commissioned officer leadership at every level has helped to identify small infractions when they occur, allowing leadership to correct deficiencies earlier and prevent unprofessional behavior from taking root.”

The work environment for drill instructors is tough, Kazmier said, which is why the Corps has emphasized patience in their training.

He said drill instructors often work more than 90 hours per week, are constantly on their feet and using a loud voice.

“If you look at incidents where drill instructors made mistakes, almost always … they've lost their patience,” he said. “This is a very demanding environment for both drill instructors and recruits.”

Kazmier said he rejects the notion that a lighter touch at the end of recruit training might weaken the Marines.

“There's going to be people out there … who are going to believe they went through a tougher recruit training than exists right now,” he said. “I'm telling you it's not true. It's a tougher standard than it used to be, and you don't need to abuse or haze recruits for them to achieve it.”

Although the “vast majority” of drill instructors operate within Marine Corps' regulations when dealing with recruits, Kazmier said the service will not let up on those who don't.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune – Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.