Military Hazing: Rite or Wrong?

By Tony Briscoe
Staff writer

When Sean Paul Brinston joined the Navy, he didn’t know that piling charred human feces would be how he would serve his country.

While in Afghanistan, Navy corpsman Brinston’s platoon was ordered by a sergeant to tidy up a burn pit — a landfill of garbage, thrown-out food and human defecation.

“All of the stuff down there is anything you can think of, and at night coyotes get down there,” said Brinston, who is based at a naval medical center in Portsmouth, Va.

The company reluctantly began the daunting task, an experience that Brinston now considers hazing.

“We used to burn the ‘wag bags’ (bags of feces) at night, but some of them weren’t burned that day because everyday bags get thrown down there,” he said. “It smelled horrible.”

In another instance, Brinston said his platoon was ordered to cover all the sand in the compound with gravel just to kill time. About five hours later, on a 120-degree day, the commanding officer said that roughly 800 square feet was enough.

Brinston and his platoon were ordered to cover the base with gravel to keep them busy. He considers this one of many ways he was hazed in the military.

The word hazing alone still gives former Army Staff Sgt. William Titus chills.

“I’m not touching that with a 16-foot pole.”

Even 40 years after his service in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam, Titus remains tight-lipped about hazing in the military for fear of repercussions. His motto is simple:

“One man hazes as another man grazes.”

Although the U.S. military doesn’t report hazing statistics, there have been several media reports that indicate that hazing is still an issue.

One of the most publicized incidents happened on April 3, 2011, when Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew committed suicide while serving in Afghanistan. Prior to his death, he had been reportedly punched and kicked in the head, ordered to do leg lifts with sandbags and had sand poured on his face, among other things. Two of the three marines accused of hazing Lew stood trial. One was found not guilty and another accepted a plea deal for a 30-day jail sentence. The third marine is still awaiting trial.

Following Lew’s death, several members of the House of Representatives including his aunt, U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.), teamed up to shed light on the issue of military hazing. The legislators wrote letters to the House Armed Services Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, requesting that the groups hold hearings on the matter.

“The highest military officials must make eliminating hazing a top priority,” said Chu, in a statement. “They must stop pretending there is no problem None of this will change until the Secretary of Defense commits to eradicate the culture of hazing that is so ingrained within our troops. Service members in positions of responsibility in the field must be made to feel that they should stop hazing when they see it, rather than encourage it, or turn the other way.”

The subculture of hazing took center stage once again on Feb. 4, 2012, when the Navy reported that eight sailors aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard were discharged for strangling and beating a fellow sailor as an initiation rite that was caught on video.

Initiation rites, like line-crossing ceremonies, are customary in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. In a line-crossing ceremony, veteran sailors (shellbacks) initiate their shipmates who haven’t crossed the Equator (pollywogs). Common practices include spraying “wogs” with fire hoses, locking them in stocks and enclosing them in coffins filled with salt water. These rituals, originally used to ensure new sailors could handle life at sea, escalated over time and have even led to deaths.

The U.S. isn’t the only country with rampant military hazing. Foreign armed forces were also found to have a number of hazing altercations according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Human Rights Report.

Russia’s military is one of the most infamous for hazing. The country’s ministry of defense reported 14 servicemen died from being hazed in 2010. However, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, a human rights organization, estimates that the number of hazing deaths to be around 2,000. In 2009, the group said it received 9,523 complaints of military hazing.

“The complaints mostly concerned beatings, but also included sexual abuse, torture, and enslavement,” according to the report. “Soldiers often did not report hazing to unit officers or military prosecutors due to fear of reprisals, since in some cases officers allegedly tolerated or even encouraged hazing as a means of controlling their units.”

Hazing among Russia servicemen revolves around “”dedovshchina”, a Russian term, which can literally be translated as “rule of the grandfathers”. “Ded”, Russian for grandfather, refers to senior conscripts, which subject lower ranks to humiliating activities and abuse. According to military officials, abuse in the military, particularly dedovschina increased 150 percent, in the first six months of 2010 compared to the previous year.

Other nations that reported military hazing as an issue include: Japan, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

Although Italy’s human rights report didn’t mention hazing as an issue, the country’s military has a term similar to dedovshchina, called “nonnismo,” which means hazing in Italian, but stems from the word “nonno,” meaning grandfather.

Brinston said that hazing could be worse in foreign militaries because in some cases there are no rules or a lack of enforcement. But even in the U.S. military, he said there’s a lack of enforcement.

Corpsman Sean Paul Brinston, on the far left, served in Afganistan.

As of July 2005, the Navy defines hazing as “any conduct whereby a military member or members, regardless of service or rank, without proper authority causes another military member or members, regardless of service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to any activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning, or harmful.”

Navy policy, like rules of other U.S. military branches, states that hazing will not be tolerated. Although Brinston said rules have helped, he still believes hazing will never be put to an end.

“A lot guys don’t even know they are being hazed. They come in not knowing what’s right from wrong, and they’re told to shut up and go with the flow.”

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