If a young man, 18 years old and perfectly naive, searches for higher education, he is unlikely going to be met at his chosen school with hostile, abrasive, and demeaning professors. In fact his experience would be the exact opposite and, like many students, he would bond with some of his favorite professors – finding every interaction poses a delightful intellectual challenge that pushes him close to better grades and a better experience with higher education in general. Experiences like this are almost universal at college campuses because the authority figures – the faculty and administration – go out of their way to help a student succeed, even if the student is only an “average” performer. When I studied at Colorado State University, I went from being a straight A student in community college to a seemingly average performer, at no fault but my own. My father helped prepare me for this reality, stressing that my experience would be markedly different and I would need to endow a sense of determination and fortitude similar to what was required of me as a Marine. Yes, being a Marine taught me discipline, confidence, and courage – all of which I could harness in my academic pursuits. My experiences left me, however, with a certain lack of respect for authority figures.
Boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego (MCRD) is where bullying took on a whole other meaning for me. Whenever I changed schools as a child, I expected a degree of bullying to follow. I was the kid who got into all of the fights. I was the kid who stole comic books out of other’s back packs, and would read them by myself during the lunch hour. Acting out was my modus operandi and found me in the principals office on a regular basis. So even well before the Marine Corps, I had trouble with authority and had trouble following the rules. Part of my desire to join the Marines was to right my hubris and make me a better man. My parents agreed with my reasoning, not because I was a really bad kid, but because I had this constant struggle with authority. But if I refused to do homework, why did I expect that I could suddenly put on my left sock and boot when ordered to do so? The answer is more simple than even I realized: I respected the military before I ever considered joining. Both of my grandfather’s served, both fought in a war, both were the patriarchs of beautiful families, and both were highly respected by their loved ones. I saw military service as a conditional form of respect. Imagine my surprise when I got to boot camp and earned everything but respect. My fellow recruits bullied me almost from the very beginning. They would discuss throwing me a blanket party and settled on giving me double fire watch instead. I was 6’3″ and 142 lbs. when I weighed in to boot camp. The perception was that I was an easy and weak target. But the treatment from my fellow recruits was nothing compared to what the drill instructors would do to me.
Frequently I found myself singled out. They labeled me a “shit bag” and made sure the other recruits fell in line with their hate for me. I would be called on to the quarter deck and hazed for hours while the other recruits learned drill or cleaned their weapons. Every night before bed, I was forced to drink a canteen full of water, causing me to wake minutes before lights needing to use the head. When they realized this became a routine for me, they shut down the head 15 minutes before lights, causing me to piss myself. Eventually I learned to go straight to the back of the squad bay, empty my canteen, and relieve myself in it. When they handed out our dog tags the week of graduation, the drill instructor handed everyone their tags and shook their hand. Except for me. As I reached out my hand, Sergeant Ortega dropped my tags to the deck. The other recruits laughed as I gathered my dog tags off the floor and took my seat, embarrassed and ashamed. Hazing is commonplace in boot camp, and the kind I faced was more psychological than physical, but I was effected greatly by their behavior. On the day of my graduation, Staff Sergeant Ceritelli told me I didn’t deserve to graduate, and I didn’t deserve to be a Marine.
Some Marines will say hazing is a tradition, and, if you can’t handle it, you’re nothing more than a pussy. Yet I was an outlier from the start because of my history with bullying and my mental health. At 8 years old I started taking Ritalin for ADD, which predisposed me to any other co-morbid diagnosis for the rest of my life. Obviously this is not disclosed to the military because anyone with a mental health diagnosis is considered a risk. But I was part of the crowd of children who were over diagnosed with ADD in the mid nineties, so recruiters were actually taught to falsify records and train their potential recruits to deny any mental health history. The effects of hazing on me were psychologically traumatizing. Instead of learning to trust my leaders, my tentative attitude toward authority was instead unwittingly encouraged.
I graduated boot camp in 2004. Last year, the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Paris Island faced accusations of abuse. You can read the full article here. This time, two recruits were targeted by the same drill instructor because of their Muslim heritage, and one recruit died while fleeing from the abuse. My experience could be considered mild, or typical in comparison to this tragedy, yet we must evaluate the prevalence of hazing and its long term effects from a psychological lens. Multiple reports exist to tell the story of a service member committing suicide as a result of an intense hazing experience. When does tradition no longer have a place in a progressive society? Intent does not require a lack of moral conscience to still be considered adverse and detrimental to another human being. My experience in boot camp ultimately shaped my overall experience as a Marine Infantryman. I experienced several instances of hazing, which, according to my leadership, epitomized more of a right of passage rather than a negative experience that could effect my psyche for years to come.
People who hold a position of authority may not realize how powerful their command truly is until it is too late. But if you hold water because you are experienced and skilled, hazing should be the very last training module you consider to implement your policies. In the workplace, a change in command is usually contentious and causes storming among team members. How the new leader accepts their new role imprints a lasting impression. I have trouble with authority because I believe I know what is required to be a good leader, without acting power hungry or belittling those whom I am tasked to lead. In my experience authority figures try too hard to impose their will inappropriately. The Marine Corps touts its exceptional ability to develop leaders. But what they have really done is crafted leaders from a tainted mold. Only those who can psychologically endure verbal and physical abuse advance to the next level, and then encourage more of the same from their troops. This must end. Leadership is about developing your team and exploiting the very best of their skills, talents and abilities. Anything that drives even one person to a deep depression and suicidal ideation is not leadership, that is murder.