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Our View: No room in military for religious intolerance

Implementing sweeping change in the military takes leadership from the top down, and even then it doesn’t happen overnight

Published on November 14, 2017 7:28AM

Last changed on November 14, 2017 9:05AM

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, his wife, and his lawyers exit a courtroom Oct. 31 after testimony at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Rory Laverty/The Washington Post

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, his wife, and his lawyers exit a courtroom Oct. 31 after testimony at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Imagine that your son enlists in the Marine Corps. Imagine that weeks later, you are told that he died. And because you are not given the whole story, you call your member of Congress.

That is what happened to the parents of Raheel Siddiqui.

Last Friday, Pvt. Siddiqui’s drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military jury.

Siddiqui, 20, a Pakistani-American from Taylor, Michigan, was one of three Muslim recruits abused by Felix. He hurled himself to his death after what the jury decided was mistreatment by Felix that included slapping Siddiqui and calling him a terrorist, according to the Associated Press. The government did not charge Felix with any crime directly related to Siddiqui’s death, instead convicting him on abuse charges.

The Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island has long been the scene of other hazing incidents. Decades ago, a drill instructor marched his platoon into a creek at night. Some of the recruits drowned.

The Felix trial shows that the Marines have since drawn clearer lines between what instructors can and cannot do, said Michael Hanzel, a former Navy attorney who attended the proceedings at Camp Lejeune.

“This generation now, there’s things that I think that we’re much more focused on … in this trial, it’s calling people names based on their religion and targeting people based on their religion,” said Hanzel, now a private attorney specializing in military law. “I don’t think anyone would say that was acceptable ever, but it probably was not prosecuted in the past the way it would be now.”

The crimes committed by Felix raised an alarm beyond the boundaries of Parris Island for two reasons. First, he targeted victims based on their religious beliefs. Second, he raised the bar on cruelty in the recruit barracks. His peculiar penchant was to order a recruit to enter an industrial-size clothes dryer, close the door and start it. He also commanded recruits to choke each other, punched them in the face or kicked them to the ground, among other abuses.

“He wasn’t making Marines. He was breaking Marines,” prosecutor Lt. Col. John Norman told the jury.

When U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell took up the cause of the Siddiqui family’s search for justice, other members of Congress told her not to make waves about Marine Corps recruit training. She defied that conventional wisdom.

In addition to prison, Sgt. Felix is now a private, and he will receive a dishonorable discharge.

Implementing sweeping change in the military takes leadership from the top down, and even then it doesn’t happen overnight. When President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, he encountered entrenched resistance from the almost entirely all-white officer corps. He had to forcibly retire the secretary of the Army for his refusal to enforce the presidential executive order. President Dwight Eisenhower later desegregated military schools, hospitals and bases. The last all-black unit wasn’t abolished until 1954.

As a result of Truman’s bold, historic move, nonwhite soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors today have more leadership opportunities and advancement potential than the private, corporate world offers to minority employees. His order called for equal treatment without regard to race, color, religion or national origin, and as a result our armed forces have become the nation’s greatest meritocracy.

There is absolutely no excuse for religious intolerance and hatred in the ranks. American Muslims are fighting and dying for this country, and deserve to be treated with the same respect as their comrades. After Siddiqui’s March 2016 suicide, a hazing investigation led to charges against Felix, five other drill instructors and the training battalion’s commanding officer. Eleven others faced lesser discipline.

As we endure a presidency that is painfully ambivalent on matters of racial bigotry, it is necessary for other leaders to draw the line between what is OK and what is not — between right and wrong.

The superintendent of the Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, exhibited such leadership earlier this year, when he denounced — in no uncertain terms — alleged bigotry against blacks at the academy’s preparatory school.

“If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out,” he said in a speech to cadets. “If you can’t treat someone from another race, or different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

The allegations later turned out to be untrue, but Gen. Silveria stood by his message last week.

When the voices making such declarations are in military uniform, the message carries extra weight.


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