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Marine Corps says recruit’s training death was ‘avoidable,’ drill instructor might be charged

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Karl Puckett and Sofia Sanchez

The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

Aug. 4—First of three parts

The death of Marine recruit Dalton Beals — who succumbed to the heat last June during training at U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina — likely could have been avoided with better supervision and leadership, and may result in charges being brought against his drill instructor, including the possibility of negligent homicide.

Dalton Beals, 18, of Pennsville, New Jersey died during the final phase of US Marine Corps boot camp. (GoFundME)

That’s according to a U.S. Marines investigative report obtained by the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.

Beal died June 4, 2021, during the Crucible, a rite-of-passage held during week 10 of recruit training at Parris Island, when recruits march 48 miles over 54 hours carrying up to 45 pounds of gear through 36 stations and problem-solving exercises.

In the ensuing 13 months, the Marines have refused to release details surrounding Beals’ death, denying a freedom of information request from the newspapers, which obtained the Command Investigation and Line of Duty Determination report independently.

“Recruit Beals’ tragic death was likely avoidable,” the investigation concluded.

The report places the blame for the death of the 19-year-old Pennsville, N.J., native on training and leadership failures, including company commanders, but particularly cites the role of Beals’ Crucible team leader, a senior drill instructor whose name is redacted in the report.

The report recommends legal or administrative action against the drill instructor, two commanders and three additional Marines, but those decisions have not yet been made.

Maj. Philip Kulczewski, a Parris Island spokesman, said the case is under legal review by military prosecutors. It would be inappropriate to speculate, Kulczewski said, about the details of the case in light of the ongoing review.

“Ultimately, our intent is to be as transparent as possible without compromising the legal processes,” Kulczewski said. “MCRD Parris Island Leadership is in contact with the family and provides information as it becomes available. A request for legal services has been submitted by the Recruit Training Regiment in the case of Pfc. Beals.”

Regarding the team leader-drill instructor, the report recommends legal and/or administrative action “for conducting unauthorized incentive training notwithstanding hot weather conditions during the Crucible, and thereafter failing to appropriately monitor the impact of the hot weather conditions on Recruit Beals in violation of Article 134 (Negligent Homicide) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

It also recommends punishment for the team leader/drill instructor for calling recruits “pig, war pig, bacon, sweet bacon, bitches, and retard,” being derelict in his duties for failing to supervise recruits and failing to monitor the effects of hot weather on recruit Beals, the report said.

“The dehumanizing effect of referring to recruits as pigs, retards, bitches, or other more profane names can lead to drill instructors taking actions that they otherwise would not,” the report says in a long list of recommendations stemming from Beal’s death.

Several training improvements and changes to the Crucible, mostly relating to training in hot weather, also are recommended in the report.

Beals’ mother, Stacie Beveridge Beals, traveled from New Jersey to Parris Island last week to visit the location where her son died, and also met with Marine leaders including Brig. Gen. Walker M. Field, the commanding general of the base.

“I’ve been patient with the Marines, waiting for answers to what charges, if any, will be charged against Dalton’s senior drill instructor, who was also his Crucible leader,” Beveridge Beals said. “They’ve asked me to keep quiet about this and the Command Investigation I received back last December. I don’t feel I’ve been taken seriously and it’s been recommended that I go public to get some support as generally, they like to keep any negligence away from the public.”

Had it not been for the alleged negligence, Beveridge Beals believes, her son would “still be here.” In her quest for answers, she said, she wants to make sure a similar incident never happens again.

Death came during Crucible

Parris Island trains 19,000 marines a year.

Beals was assigned to Platoon 2040 in Company E after arriving at Parris Island on March 12, 2021.

Those who complete the Crucible receive their Corps’ Eagle, Globe and Anchor Emblem, and go on to graduate.

Beals was demonstrating clear signs of heat illness before his death, the report says, with other recruits reporting that he was hunched over, sluggish and “leaning over like he was falling asleep.”

“Beals,” one recruit told investigators, “was out of it.”

About 90 minutes after Beals had completed one of the training events, which included a four-mile hike, during the second day of the Crucible, he was found unconscious on Page Field, a former airfield on the southeast corner of the depot, the report says. Efforts to revive him failed.

For more than an hour, Beals was unaccounted for, the report says, until his body was discovered. Beals had left his team, alone, in the throes of heat illness.

When the “convening authority” considers legal or administrative actions, the report advises that it consider mitigating circumstances including the heat, which affected everybody. Temperatures reached the 90s. And two other recruits besides Beals, from a different team, also collapsed with heat illness. Beals’ team leader, the report adds, was one of the drill instructors who assisted corpsmen in responding to those individuals, which could have affected supervision of Beals’ squad at a critical time when he was unaccounted for.

Those circumstances do not excuse his actions throughout the Crucible, the report says, but “they should be considered in determining what legal or administrative actions are appropriate.”

Drill instructor’s role questioned

An autopsy showed Beals died from hyperthermia, in the line of duty, not due to any misconduct of his own, the report says.

Hyperthermia, according to the National Institutes of Health, is an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the body to deal with the heat.

Drill sergeants are tasked with preventing heat-related injuries by modifying uniforms and the scheduled training. While recruits were well-versed and trained on the proper steps to avoid heat illness, the report says, Beals’ team leader, a senior drill instructor, did not keep a close enough eye on the recruits, considering the heat. The leader, in fact, made the training harder and discouraged recruits from seeking medical assistance, according to the investigation.

In one instance, the report says, the team leader mocked a recruit for seeing a corpsman after being bitten by fire ants. In another instance, he said, “Oh, you sweet thing,” after overhearing a recruit ask Beals “are you OK big dog?” after Beals tripped while hiking.

“Recruit Beals’ tragic death was likely avoidable,” the report says. “Instead of appropriately taking into account the weather conditions (as reflected by yellow, red and black flag conditions throughout the Crucible), Recruit Beals’ team leader intensified training for Recruit Beals’ team, including directing unauthorized incentive training throughout both days of the event. Those actions increased the impact of the weather conditions on Recruit Beals and other recruits in Group 2, Team 1. At the same time, [the team leader] failed to adequately supervise Recruit Beals and other Group 2, Team 1 recruits, including during red and black flag conditions on Day 2.”

Yellow flag conditions are 85 to 87.9 degrees; red flag, 88 to 89.9 degrees, and black flag, 90 degrees and above.

Prior to the Crucible, the report says, recruits were unwilling to bring problems to the drill instructor’s attention.

His perceived indifference to the well-being of recruits “could have impacted Recruit Beals or other recruit’s willingness to seek medical attention when Recruit Beals was clearly showing signs of heat injury during the Crucible,” the report says.

“While his performance as a senior drill instructor appeared to improve somewhat throughout the cycle,” the report says, “during the Crucible he demonstrated little leadership over his team, and at times appeared disinterested in leading or supervising them.”

Recruits at Parris Island complete 13 weeks of training during a cycle.

Recruits in Platoon 2040 complained about the drill instructor in surveys that they were required to fill out after arriving on Parris Island, which is located within the borders of Port Royal in northern Beaufort County, the report says.

Recruits who asked for medical attention, for example, were told by their drill instructor to “go away.” Two others said that they would “never bring any problem to my SDI (senior drill instructor) for the mere fact that he doesn’t care at all.”

The drill instructor said that he would “try to gain respect through pain,” according to the report, and was asked “to come in and go hard on them.”

But in interviews with investigators after Beals’ death, some recruits also had positive comments about the drill instructor, including one who noted that he regularly checked in on him after he told him he had not heard from his family.

Senior officers face discipline

The role of senior officers also is questioned in the report.

The lead series commander was aware of Platoon 2040’s lack of confidence in the drill instructor, based on the survey responses, the report says. The series commander is primarily charged with supervision and safety during recruit training.

The company commander, the report adds, also failed to properly address the concerns.

The Marine Recruit Training Order requires a company commander to notify a battalion commander of allegations of recruit abuse or drill instructor maltreatment as soon as possible.

Concerns from recruits were never reported to the 2nd Battalion, the report says, although a recruit allegedly did tell a higher up about mistreatment from the drill sergeant. When the drill sergeant was asked about this, he called the recruit a liar and began to refer to the recruit daily as a “pig, bitch and retard,” the investigation found.

Besides the senior drill instructor, the investigation recommends either punitive or legal action against the Company E commander, the company’s series commander and three additional Marines. The names of the individuals are redacted in the report.

Issues raised with those individuals were failing to document allegations of abuse, failing to supervise during the Crucible and a poor command climate and “degradation of good order and discipline at Company E.”

Brig. Gen. Julie Nethercot, the commanding general at the time, ordered the investigation, which included 100 in-person and phone interviews. The investigative team, the report says, also reviewed an interim investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates felony-level offenses.

Nethercot left Parris Island in June for a new job at U.S. Southern Command in Miami, where she will serve as director of J5 Strategy and Plans, which proposes strategies, plans and policy recommendations to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nethercot transferred command to Field.

The recommendations

Here’s some of the recommendations in the report:

— Consider mandatory alterations to Crucible training and/or uniform requirements based on flag conditions.

— Require recovery periods and staging to occur in the shade to the extent possible.

— Assign permanent corpsmen to particular units so they remain with the same recruits throughout the Crucible.

— Require corpsmen to check every recruit for signs of heat injury following high-stress events.

— Destigmatize seeking medical care so recruits, who can be fearful they will be dropped from training, do not avoid seeking it.

— Require additional heat injury screening during the recruitment. Beals, the report said, marked “no” in response to whether he had a history of heat injury, heat stroke, or heat intolerance, although his parents told investigators he once suffered severe muscle cramps during football practice.

— Establish a board selection process with each battalion for assignment of senior drill instructors, which would ensure the best candidates.

— Require use of recruit hydration cards throughout the Crucible and make sure drill instructors explain to recruits the proper purpose of the cards.

— Drill instructors should remain with recruits during recovery periods to the extent possible.

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(c)2022 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

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