Home News Civilians question dilemma of Marine recruit Siddiqui, death by hazing or suicide?

Civilians question dilemma of Marine recruit Siddiqui, death by hazing or suicide?

Raheel Siddiqui Facebook
Recruit Raheel Siddiqui attended boot camp at Parris Island, his death is under investigation. Photo: Facebook

There is no way of knowing what was going through Raheel Siddiqui’s mind on the hour-long bus ride from the airport in Savannah, Ga., to the renowned Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.

But whatever those hopes, expectations and worries were, the reality of boot camp for the Taylor Harry S. Truman High School valedictorian who had decided against his family’s initial wishes to join the Marines would be far, far worse.

Part of what he was feeling was probably excitement: Raheel had wanted this, after all. He had signed the enlistment papers a year before. And he’d been through it all with his parents, his sister, his friends at the Home Depot near his home in Taylor. He’d smiled broadly, posing for pictures with his family before leaving — his sister Sidra grinning, his mom looking less outwardly pleased, but nonetheless proud. His friends at the Home Depot even threw him a party, complete with a red, white and blue cake, inscribed, “Good Luck and Good Wishes!”

But now here he was, arriving as recruits do in the dark at Parris Island. And the shouting had already started. He knew it was coming — everyone who enlists in the Marines knows it is coming. But nothing truly prepares you for it: not training to run 3 miles without losing your wind. Not learning to swim, as Siddiqui had. The noise. The crowding. Everything “now, now, now,” as they order you on painted yellow footprints just off the bus, and teach you how to stand as they hustle you through a pair of steel doors that you only ever go through once on your way to becoming a Marine.

This is the easy part of basic training. It will get much, much harder. Twelve weeks of hell. Everyone knows this. Siddiqui knows this. But there is no way of knowing what was going through his mind as he arrived at Parris Island thatMarch 7 evening, or in the days that followed, despite what is now — six months later — a growing mountain of investigations, interviews and media reports touching and speculating on the topic.

What known is that Siddiqui never became a Marine. He never saw his mom or his sister again. And he never walked back into that Home Depot in Taylor in his uniform, as promised. Instead, 11 days after getting off that bus, he was rushed from the base to a nearby hospital, his body broken from a three-story fall. A few hours after that, he was dead.

The Marines, in their official investigative report, are calling it a suicide. But whether that was his intention — to kill himself — very much remains a question. And his family doesn’t believe it..

What Siddiqui — a skinny, friendly, un-athletic, Pakistani-American whose family immigrated to Michigan in 1990 — couldn’t have known while getting off the bus at Parris Island and hustled through the silver hatches that March night is that he’d be assigned to the 3rd Training Battalion’s Platoon 3042. And that the top instructor there was a sergeant who, the Marines say, shouldn’t have been there at all after having allegedly attacked another Muslim recruit, in a different platoon, in 2015; asking him whether he was a terrorist and ordering him into an industrial dryer, burning him, according to a separate investigative report related to the incident.

Siddiqui couldn’t have known that he’d wind up in a platoon where he’d be verbally assaulted — he was called a terrorist, as well — and physically abused, as were others, the Marines now say, with some suffering broken ribs and muscle damage even after Siddiqui’s death. For Siddiqui, the Marines say in investigative reports, the behavior drove him up to and over the brink.

And what Siddiqui couldn’t have known was that the problems with drill instructors hazing recruits — going beyond the rules of training — may have extended beyond his platoon. A parent of another recruit — possibly, but not definitely in another platoon — wrote to the White House a month later to complain of “abuse of authority, threats of physical harm, food deprivation and hazing.”

One instructor allegedly made a recruit contact the recruit’s sister via Facebook to get her to call the barracks so the instructor could flirt with her, according to yet another separate investigative report related to the letter sent to theWhite House. Another recruit was allegedly told words to the effect of, “If you’re not careful, you are going to wake up with a knife in your chest,” the report says.

For Siddiqui, it allegedly came down to a standoff between him and the head drill instructor who, frustrated, began slapping him loudly enough to be heard across the noisy barracks. It was then, according to the investigative reports into his death, that Raheel picked himself up and ran toward the far end of the wide, open room; sprinting 144 feet before throwing open an exterior door, heading toward the stairwell, and leaping.

“This assault was likely the impetus for (Siddiqui’s) running from the squad bay and jumping from the building,” Marine officials, speaking anonymously because the reports have not been made public yet, told the Free Press. “(The) verbal abuse and physical abuse during close order drill and other activities. … These factors very likely affected (his) state of mind.”

“I think he had a gentle soul,” says U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who never met Siddiqui but has been in regular contact with his family since his death — and has pressed the Marines for answers throughout. “You get struck by how many people tell you what a special guy this was.”

Dingell then begins to cry.

“This family (Siddiqui’s family) has become my family. And no matter what I do, I can’t bring (Raheel’s mother) her son back,” she says, choking up. “And she wants her son back.”

Suicide or something else?

The nature of military investigations like the ones into Siddiqui’s death and the spiraling chain of related events around it ensures gaps in the record: Names are redacted, pending charges; military officials are unable to publicly discuss questions about the frequency of recruit suicides or how often recruits are sent home — separated, in their lingo — for threatening to hurt themselves. Even sorting out what the penalty might be for being cruel toward a recruit, or attacking one, requires reading the small type in the Manual for Courts-Martial, 2012 edition.

And it’s no different in this case. Reports on the investigation into Siddiqui’s death leave out his name, as well as those of his drill instructors, the names of captains that oversaw his platoon, even those of the base brass — Col. Paul Cucinotta, the regimental commander among them — who have been relieved of duty since Siddiqui died. In trying to piece together what’s known about the events leading up to Siddiqui’s death, the Free Press relied on these redacted reports, as well as interviews, press releases, congressional statements and other media reports, including those in the Wall Street Journal.

Siddiqui’s family, despite several requests made through their lawyer, has declined to be interviewed, as have many of his friends and former teachers contacted by the Free Press. In characterizing Siddiqui’s home life leading up to his departure for Parris Island, the Free Press relied heavily on a Wall Street Journal article from July 1, which detailed talks with his family and friends.

What is known, however, is that members of Siddiqui’s family reject the Marines’ contention that Siddiqui committed suicide, saying it was not in his character and they knew of no previous mental health problems. On Friday , they reiterated in a statement through their attorney their “serious concerns that Raheel’s death was criminal and not a suicide.”

But the Marines say they have their own evidence that Siddiqui was contemplating suicide: his own words.

Like every other recruit processed through Recruit Depot, Parris Island, Siddiqui spent his first four days going through largely administrative tasks and procedures. The process goes something like this: You make a quick call home, get your head shaved, get medical and dental exams, select life insurance options, hand in personal items, collect clothing and equipment — all under the eye of Marines watching you at every step, insisting that you not look around, or put your head down, or speak when not spoken to.

On your fourth full day, you take your initial strength test: If you’re a man, you must run 1 { miles in 13 minutes or less, do at least two dead-hang pull-ups and perform 44 crunches in two minutes. Siddiqui would have been about one of 4,000 recruits on the base, on what was a humid 78-degree day on the South Carolina coast.

The next day, you are “picked up” by your platoon. Before that happens, a commander talks about the chain of command, discipline and responsibilities. He or she administers a pledge to drill instructors that begins: “These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability.”

It ends: “I will demand of them and demonstrate by my own example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality and professional skill.”

In Siddiqui’s case, he and 58 others assigned to Platoon 3042 were picked up and marched to the third floor in Building 683, shown an open squad bay 60 yards long by 15 yards wide, with beds — or “racks” — in neat lines along an open center aisle. It would be their home for the next 11 weeks.

That is Saturday, March 12.

But by 7:20 a.m. the next day, still early enough in the morning for a civilian, but far later for a Marine recruit already up for hours, something is already wrong: Siddiqui tells someone, presumably a drill instructor, that he will kill himself if forced to continue training, according to the report.

It’s unclear where this conversation happens or with whom — someone threatening suicide could be pulled away, put under watch. Minutes later, the report says, military police arrive and Siddiqui tells them he can’t “handle drill instructors yelling at him and hitting him.”

It’s against code to hit or even touch a recruit, though there are instances where it’s allowed — with the minimum force necessary — to “correct” a recruit’s position, movement or clothing, for instance. Siddiqui’s claim was “dismissed” by a drill instructor as “drill corrections,” the report says.

Drill instructors hitting recruits is nothing new. Many Marines say it’s just part of basic training. Mansoor Shams, a former Marine corporal who lives in Baltimore and went through Parris Island in 2000, says he remembers an instructor banging him abruptly in the ribs and nearly knocking him off his feet for talking and another slapping him for swatting at a sand fly while at attention.

“They tell you there is no physical abuse, that the drill instructors can’t touch you. But they do,” said Shams, who operates the website MuslimMarine.org, which examines the intersection of being a Muslim fighting for the U.S. “(But) you’re being yelled at left and right. It’s just such an environment of pressure that you don’t know how to exercise those rights.”

Then again, said Shams, Marine training is about breaking recruits down, and building them back up.

“You see the biggest guys cry,” he said.

While the reports don’t say what abuse Siddiqui claimed, evidence was later compiled showing “systemic hazing and physical abuse of recruits,” not to mention threats, such as promising to take out grievances during martial arts training.

An alleged hierarchy among the drill instructors resulted in more junior members being hazed and scolded for trying to teach recruits, with a senior instructor telling subordinates that in order to train recruits they needed to “hate” them. Male recruits were called “bitches” or “faggots.” At least one instructor, according to the report, was alleged to have asked recruits whether another recruit — possibly, though not necessarily, Siddiqui — was a “terrorist,” or if he needed his “turban.”

Again, it’s not known what happened specifically to Siddiqui, but the reports say he told others not only that he would kill himself, but that he had a plan: He would “jump out the squad bay window and if necessary cut the screen prior to jumping.” Because a suicide threat could lead to separation from the Marines, someone asks him what his mother would think if he left without getting through basic training. He responds that he’d “tell his mother good-bye and kill himself.”

“The future does not matter. This recruit is going to kill himself,” Siddiqui reportedly says, adding that he has had suicidal thoughts in the past but kept them from his family and his recruiter. His shoelaces and belt are taken away and he is placed under watch. But when it comes time to determine whether he should be transported off base for immediate treatment, the answer is no, with officials saying base protocol requires that a “recruit engage in self-harm or an actual suicide attempt to qualify for emergency transport.”

But did Siddiqui mean it? It’s not unusual for recruits to talk about suicide, said Shams, recalling a case in his platoon. Drill instructors had a recruit watched until he could be moved out. Kate Germano — who formerly commanded a battalion at Parris Island but was relieved of duty last year because of complaints that she was a “toxic” leader, despite her contention that she was out to improve a culture that balked at command oversight — said such threats are common.

With Siddiqui, there is no way of knowing.

He is placed under watch, with a different platoon. Then, at some point, he recants, the report says.

He does not want to die, he says. He wants to be a Marine.

Loyal, with a zest for life

Siddiqui’s parents were doubtful about his intention to become a Marine, a decision he made after studying at the University of Michigan campus in Dearborn where he’d had a scholarship for engineering. It was a move Siddiqui saw as perhaps leading to his dream of becoming an FBI agent, the Wall Street Journal reported.

He had never even been away from home on a sleepover.

And while he was seen as thoughtful and mature — using an easy, helpful demeanor on the service desk at Home Depot — friends and teachers suggested he was innocent and perhaps sheltered. He managed to win all over, however, once he began preparing to become a Marine recruit. He trained to run and swim. As part of the Marines’ Delayed Entry Program, Siddiqui would have been given advice and counseling on what to expect and what would be expected of him.

As for whether he worried that he would be singled out and harassed as a Muslim, one friend, Greta Ibarra-Leonard told the Wall Street Journal, “He didn’t give it a second or even a third thought.”

He started doing pull-ups and mixing protein drinks.

“I think what’s important here is to know who Raheel Siddiqui really was,” said the family’s attorney, Shiraz Kahn. “He was an intelligent and proud young American who wanted to serve his country. He was ambitious, dedicated, loyal and had a zest for life.”

At some point after his suicide threat, but before he is taken to the base’s Mental Health Unit the day after the threat, Siddiqui is brought into a “personal interview” with someone on the base. The records aren’t clear whether it’s an officer or enlisted man. Prior to the session, the interviewer is briefed on Siddiqui’s contention that he’d been hit. But he is never asked any specific question about it.

More than that, the person doesn’t report it, or submit a recruit incident report on the suicide threat.

Siddiqui is brought before the Recruit Liaison Service — an office where recruits are briefed on “the consequences of their words when they speak to the Mental Health Unit.” Typically a drill instructor would remain in another room, the one with Siddiqui stands 10 feet away as he speaks.

Again, Siddiqui recants, saying he thought it was the only way to quit; saying he never had any mental health problems before, he was just making it up. He had done something “stupid,” he says, and he is now “motivated to return to training.” Sent on to the Mental Health Unit, he is cleared as being at “a low risk for harm” and recommended to be returned to training. But instructors do not mention nor is it noted on medical evaluation forms submitted to the unit that he had not only threatened suicide, he had articulated a plan for it.

“Recruits being seen at Mental Health Unit are under stress and may have mental health issues. It is therefore logical to conclude that their statements may be inaccurate or unreliable,” the report on the investigation into Siddiqui’s death said. “Had (the) Mental Health Unit known (about the plan) he would have been separated from the with a diagnosis of suicidal ideation.”

There are even supposed to be programs for recruits to receive “formal mentorship” and other attention to address problems they may have in adjusting and adapting to the training environment, said Marines spokesman Maj.Clark Carpenter. But the investigation left it unclear whether those programs were even in place.

When Siddiqui returns to his platoon, subordinate drill instructors are told “to ease” Siddiqui back into training, though none of them is told he had threatened suicide.

From there, the investigative record goes dark for a few days regarding Siddiqui — he would have gone through learning close-order drills and bayonet techniques, begun martial arts training, been pushed through sprints and cross-country runs. That may sound peaceful enough, but it’s not. From the beginning, with long hours and extreme physical requirements, basic training can drive people batty.

“Due to the inherently chaotic and stressful conditions occurring in the process of recruit training, particularly during the first phase of training, recruits often cannot recall specific dates or times of events they have witnessed,” the investigation said. Shams, in his experience, remembers an Alabama recruit suddenly blurting out a refusal to go on.

Coincidentally, however, on Thursday, March 17, someone associated with the investigation into the 2015 allegations involving the recruit ordered into a dryer, contacts the investigating officer on that case recommending he interview more witnesses. The drill sergeant involved had been allowed to keep working — and taken over Platoon 3042 — because the truth of those earlier complaints had been doubted. Now, suddenly, there was an e-mail from someone in that earlier platoon allegedly “substantiating the most serious allegations.”

And something else: Although it wouldn’t be made official and announced until month’s end, Cucinotta this same day reportedly decides to relieve Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, the commander of the 3rd Battalion because of an inspector general’s report, never released publicly, that apparently led to a loss of trust in his ability to command. Kisson is the one who assigned the drill sergeant to the platoon, despite the earlier allegations.

The next day was Friday, March 18.

A final confrontation

Throughout the aftermath of Siddiqui’s death, the question of whether his religion played some role has been prominent. It is also unanswered. If the investigatory reports are true, Muslims recruits may have been targeted on at least two occasions — Siddiqui’s and the one involving the Marine put in the dryer, who was allegedly interrogated as to whether “he was part of 9/11” and “who he was working for.”

On the other hand, the investigation also concluded that the abuse in the platoon was widespread — running recruits and subordinate drill instructors to the breaking point, with recruits being punched and assaulted in the shower and even ordered to choke themselves with their own dog tag chains — regardless of religion.

According to the report, the events of March 18, the day Siddiqui died, according to the report, appear to have nothing to do with his faith.

It began early, in the middle of the night, with Siddiqui asking another recruit to talk — and being shushed by his exhausted rackmate.

Then, at 4:15 a.m., as the platoon was lined up to leave for breakfast, Siddiqui, ordered along with the others to call out before going, refuses. His drill leader demands he sound off, and Siddiqui points to his neck and hands him a note saying he’s lost his voice, his throat is swollen, and he can’t eat or drink without pain. He says he also coughed blood.

“This recruit has to go to medical,” the note says.

The drill instructor says they’ll deal with it after chow. But he still hasn’t gotten Siddiqui to talk, to sound off, or to react as required. And sounding off is part of the training, the discipline required to become a Marine. At chow, the drill instructor asks Siddiqui for help distributing cups, but Siddiqui ignores him.

Sometime after 5:10 a.m., they’re back at the barracks. Siddiqui is ordered to report to the front of the squad bay, purportedly to fill out his medical forms. But he still isn’t talking, despite the instructor’s demands.

It’s become a battle of wills.

There’s a protocol for dealing with this, says Germano: If a recruit is complaining of a medical condition, you get him to health services. And if they find he’s malingering and still won’t talk, you report him, you call the MPs if necessary and have him put in the brig.

But Siddiqui is ordered to run “get-backs” — dashing across the length of the squad bay and back, over and over, as hard as he can. The instructor, the investigators found, is yelling, and appears irritated, according to the report, by Siddiqui’s refusal to speak. Across the squad bay is all shouting and confusion, with the instructors barking orders as training continues and the other recruits responding, not allowed to look at what is happening with Siddiqui.

At an impasse with Siddiqui, the instructor knows he has to demonstrate his authority and obtain a response or discipline will be undermined. “Given the role of the drill instructor to lead recruits to surpass their own perceived limitations and weaknesses, (his) conduct at that point in time was not unreasonable,” concluded the report.

But rather than separating him from the group or taking other action, he just orders Siddiqui to keep running. At some point, Siddiqui puts his hands around his throat, thumbs on the front of his neck. At some point, he begins to cry.

The instructor barks something like, “I don’t care what’s wrong with you. You’re going to say something back to me.” Siddiqui drops to the floor in front of him.

Some of the other recruits thought he was faking unconsciousness. The instructor orders him up. Then he rubs his chest, hard, to get his attention. Then he slaps him — “hard enough to generate a sound across the squad bay” — though it’s unclear if it was once, twice or three times.

It’s against regulations to slap a recruit: Failing to obey that order can get you a dishonorable discharge, loss of pay and confinement for two years. Cruelty to a recruit could get you another year. Simple assault, another three months.

Siddiqui stands up holding his face. He turns and runs.

There is no way of knowing what was going through Raheel Siddiqui’s mind.

He runs past the last rack, veering toward the back of the barracks, throwing open the exterior door. The light wouldn’t have been up yet — sunrise wasn’t for another two hours. He ran to the stairway, placing his hands on the railing, his legs rising with him, preparing to vault over the side.

But his feet catch the railing, tripping him as he hurtles over, the report says. Instead of a controlled fall, feet first, he tumbles with his chest hitting the access railing as he hits the concrete three stories below, less than two seconds later. It is 5:35 a.m.

Someone calls 911. Paramedics call for air transport to Savannah, but it’s unavailable because of a threat of thunderstorms. A second helicopter, to Charleston, is arranged but would take half an hour. Siddiqui is rushed to nearbyBeaufort Memorial Hospital instead, then transferred to Charleston. At 10:06 a.m., he is pronounced dead “Despite exhaustive operative and resuscitative efforts.”

An autopsy finds he died from blunt force trauma and deems the cause of death “suicide.” The Marines report concludes: “No recruit or Marine pushed or compelled (Siddiqui) to jump over the railing. … The tripping motion and uncontrolled nature of (his) fall caused him to land closer to the building than he otherwise may have and resulted in (his) impacting the steel railing of the access stairs below.

“The tripping motion and uncontrolled nature of (his) fall (also) makes it impossible to determine whether (he) intended to commit suicide or simply disregarded the likely and probable outcome of jumping from the building in an effort to escape the confrontation” with his instructor, it said.

Still, the Marines investigation concluded there was blame to be had, saying the alleged assault by his drill instructor was “likely the impetus” for Siddiqui’s decision to jump.

Two weeks ago, the Marines announced that no fewer than 20 people face disciplinary actions or charges in the problems at Parris Island uncovered by the investigations into and around Siddiqui’s death. A new command staff is in place. Commandant Robert Neller has assured Dingell that reforms are being put in place — including a zero-tolerance policy for hazing and a review of suicide prevention protocols.

“We mourn the loss of Recruit Siddiqui, and we will take every step necessary to prevent tragic events like this from happening again,” said Neller. President Barack Obama, too, is apparently aware of the tragedy.

On Siddiqui’s mother’s Facebook page, well-wishers try to comfort her. She posts photos of Siddiqui — in his cap and gown from high school graduation, or in his Home Depot smock, a wide smile crossing his face.

And there is a picture of his gravestone: “Loving brother, friend and devoted son.”

“May God rest his soul in peace,” it says.

Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler. Staff writer Niraj Warikoo contributed to this report.


(c)2016 Detroit Free Press — at www.freep.com

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