John Stevens once “got a good shot” in the gut for a minor offense when he was a Marine Corps recruit.
He also said he once saw a fellow trainee “get put down on the (cement) floor,” a drill instructor “around his neck, choking him.”
And before Stevens arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in June 1957, he knew about the six trainees who’d drowned there when their drill instructor led them on a punitive nighttime march — an unsanctioned action — into a marsh little more than a year earlier.
In the time between the Ribbon Creek incident on April 8, 1956, and Stevens’ arrival, the Corps had cleaned house on Parris Island, made changes to recruit and drill-instructor training and added supervision over the depot’s DIs. The court-martial of then-Sgt. Matthew McKeon — the DI who, after drinking on duty, ordered the recruits of Platoon 71 into the marsh — received national media attention.
The Marines’ methods were questioned, their reputation challenged — some felt the Corps’ very existence was threatened.
In the upcoming week, in perhaps the highest-profile court-martial spotlighting Marine Corps recruit training since McKeon’s, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix will stand trial at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for allegedly abusing two Muslim recruits, one of whom — Raheel Siddiqui — leaped to his death on March 18, 2016, after a reported altercation with Felix, his DI.
Felix’s court-martial — and that of his former battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, scheduled for March 2018 — is no doubt a significant moment for the Corps, one that will again raise questions about how Parris Island makes Marines. Some see parallels between McKeon’s actions and Felix’s alleged behavior — a continuation of a culture of cruelty made possible by a permissive command climate. Others see the incidents as anomalies and distinctly separate events. Still others say that now, just as in 1956, the Corps is in crisis.
And while the death of Siddiqui — the 20-year-old Pakistani-American and former high-school valedictorian from Taylor, Mich. — has spawned other hazing and recruit-abuse investigations and prompted more changes to recruit training, it’s unclear what place the tragedy will hold in the Corps’, and Parris Island’s, history.
Stevens, who now lives in Beaufort, knows Ribbon Creek’s historical significance to the Corps — he wrote “Court-martial at Parris Island: The Ribbon Creek Incident.” The tragedy’s heft that escaped him as a 17-year-old recruit in the mid-1950s gripped him decades later as he interviewed survivors of the nighttime march and the man who led it.
And he cautions against a glaring misconception some folks have about the incident’s legacy: that the Corps’ “problem” — waning supervision leading to recruit endangerment — went away.
“That was it: The Marine Corps changed, and there’s no longer a problem,” Stevens said, mimicking what, in his opinion, is a fallacy. “But the problem never goes away. (The Corps) made many constructive changes, but you have to be on top of it all the time.
“Things will slide back. And I’m not passing judgment on what’s going on now — I think in general that’s just the reality.”
The same old story?
In some ways, Felix’s soon-to-be trial is very different than what Parris Island witnessed — and hosted — in 1956.
McKeon’s court-martial took place on the depot; Felix’s will happen at Camp Lejeune, a decision the Corps said was not influenced by the Ribbon Creek hearing.
McKeon’s trial began mere weeks after the drownings. Felix’s case is scheduled for the week of Oct. 30 through Nov. 10, more than a year-and-a-half after Siddiqui’s death. Felix’s trial was scheduled to start Monday but has been delayed because of a personal matter a member of trial counsel has to address, according to the Corps. The matter is not related to the case; the trial could begin as early as Tuesday.
And ahead of the case, the Siddiqui family has filed a $100 million federal lawsuit claiming negligence on behalf of the government. Their attorney, Shiraz Khan, did not respond to numerous requests for interviews for this story.
But there have also been similarities between the two incidents.
After Siddiqui’s death, high-ranking officers were relieved of command. The Corps added more supervision over the DIs in the form of assistant series commanders, an additional layer of lower-level officers who monitor training activities. And the Corps began what it called a “mirroring” process, where Parris Island and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego revised their methods to standardize training across the Corps.
“In the wake of the Ribbon Creek disaster, the Marines fired ... more than a hundred drill instructors,” Thomas Ricks wrote in “Making the Corps,” his in-depth analysis of recruit training on Parris Island.
In September 2016, the Corps announced that 20 Marines, most of them drill instructors, could face charges. DIs have been sent to courts-martial — one was acquitted — and others have been disciplined through administrative actions the Corps won’t disclose. Just one DI has returned to his duties, according to the Corps.
The Siddiqui incident is used as a teaching example in Drill Instructor School, according to the Corps. And all would-be DIs read Keith Fleming’s “The U.S. Marine Corps in Crisis: Ribbon Creek and Recruit Training” as part of the curriculum.
Ribbon Creek nearly cost McKeon his Marine Corps career — he was ultimately demoted to the rank of private and served three months hard labor at the depot’s chaplain’s office — and, according to Stevens, who interviewed the teary-eyed man decades later, he lived with deep remorse.
As for Felix, “he’s literally on trial for his life and career,” his attorney, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, recently said.
And once again, families have forever lost children they entrusted to the Marine Corps’ care.
Still, some say that, while inevitable, comparisons between Ribbon Creek and what happened to Raheel Siddiqui are not warranted.
“Ribbon Creek is like the Marine Corps’ monster in the closet, or the bogeyman,” said Jeff Stephens, a Beaufort attorney and retired Marine who was a recruit on Parris Island in the 1990s and later served there as a Marine Corps prosecutor and defense counselor. “Whenever you want to say something is bad, you say, ‘This is the worst thing since Ribbon Creek.’”
Recruit abuse happens, Stephens said, regardless of the measures Parris Island takes to weed out “true sadists” in the DI ranks.
It’s a problem exacerbated by the stressful nature of the job, he said, and further magnified when staffing shortages lead to burnout, which leads to outbursts.
Stephens thinks the “institutionalized” abuse present in recruit training in the 1950s and, later, in the 1970s was something different than what’s been uncovered lately at Parris Island. And yet, he said, if recruit abuse happens and doesn’t result in serious injury, it can go from being not tolerated to “a little tolerated.”
“Even in Recruit Siddiqui’s case, if recruit abuse led to what happened ... (but) it didn’t result in his death or serious injury, it would have been one of those stories where people shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Hey, recruit abuse happens, but we try to do something about it,’ ” Stephens said.
Beaufort attorney and retired Marine Brian Magee handled dozens of hazing cases as a former lead prosecutor on Parris Island. While exceptionally rare, he said, he’s seen much worse recruit abuse than the accusations against Felix. Magee said he’s seen recruits with broken bones, perforated eardrums — “things that are more akin to torture, than to harassment or hazing.”
Still, he said, if Felix did what he’s accused of doing, it would amount to “a level of depravity that just isn’t in most people.” McKeon’s actions, Magee said, were reckless, and weren’t viewed with the new construct of hazing that’s being applied today.
Older Marines, such as Stevens and Eugene Alvarez, call Ribbon Creek an accident.
“What (Felix) allegedly did is totally different,” Alvarez, a retired history professor and Marine Corps DI at Parris Island in the 1950s, said. “There’s no way you can put somebody in a clothes dryer and say it’s part of the training.”
Alvarez, who attended one day of McKeon’s trial, remembers Chesty Puller — the Corps’ most famous Marine — defending the march into Ribbon Creek, saying it was part of the training.
“What happened (after Ribbon Creek) is that all the so-called abuse went underground,” Alvarez said. “It still went on. We just weren’t as obvious with it. And it went on because that was the Marine Corps way.”
Corps in crisis?
Retired Parris Island battalion commander Lt. Col. Kate Germano hopes the Corps will learn from what happened to Raheel Siddiqui and make “long-term systemic changes.”
But she’s worried that won’t happen.
Parris Island has long been its own bubble, she said, a place where cruelty has been tolerated and taught. What happened to Siddiqui was not an anomaly.
“After Ribbon Creek, with the lens of the public vision focused on Parris Island, ... there were regulations that changed after that,” Germano said. “And so for a period of time after that, things did change. But ultimately they slid back in the same state of affairs, and they were able to slide like that because there was a lack of public scrutiny, a lack of public awareness, and the leadership was allowed to slack.”
Germano was a controversial leader at the depot, relieved of command in June 2015 after a command climate survey and ensuing investigation found her to be “unprofessional” and “confrontational,” to have belittled subordinates in public and to have undermined DIs in front of recruits.
She attributes the depot’s problems to a failure of senior leadership. So, too, does Ricks, who wrote in an email to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette: “When I heard about (the Siddiqui) scandal, I immediately thought it was a failure of senior leadership. I thought that because there is always a tension in Marine boot camp between the impulses of the drill instructors and the best interests of the Corps. The job of senior leaders is to monitor the DIs and at times to restrain them.”
The Corps is in crisis, Germano said, especially considering Siddiqui’s death and the Marines United nude-photo scandal have occurred in such close proximity.
Stevens feels recruit training is in crisis, albeit a different kind than in 1956. McKeon’s actions, while grossly negligent and foolish, were not malicious, he said. Should the allegations against Felix and others prove true, Stevens said, they would indicate something different: intentional mistreatment.
Stevens is a proud Marine who encouraged his grandson to join the Corps. In “Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps,” historian Aaron O’Connell — a Marine himself — called Stevens’ book on Ribbon Creek “the most favorable depiction of (McKeon)” out of the works he cited. Regarding McKeon and Ribbon Creek, Stevens says justice was served.
Yet, Stevens remembers how strong his DIs’ “brotherhood” was, how just months after six recruits drowned and “some of the physical abuse” had been curtailed, they would discuss Ribbon Creek.
The DIs would talk about how the press in particular, but the Corps, too, had been unfair to McKeon.
And they would say that McKeon didn’t really do anything wrong.
©2017 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.