In Marine Corps boot camp, Thomas Weaver learned to endure punches, kicks and choking by drill instructors in the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, South Carolina. When one instructor repeatedly bashed his head against a doorway, he kept quiet and acted as if it were no big deal. But what he eventually could not take was the lying that covered up the abuse.
“We were taught the Marines is all about honor and honesty, and my superiors were constantly telling us all to lie about what was happening,” Weaver, 21, said in a recent interview at his parents’ home in rural northern Florida. “I had been really proud to join the Marines, but I was not proud of what we were doing.”
A Marine Corps investigation prompted in part by Weaver’s information has uncovered widespread abuse by drill instructors in the so-called Thumping Third. In a lengthy interview, Weaver – a top-notch recruit who has since been kicked out of the military, ending his career – provided new details of how he said hazing infected all levels of drill instructors and instructors carefully concealed their abuse and threatened to give recruits “stitches” if anyone told.
The continuing inquiry has so far led to the removal of three leaders. The corps has said 20 Marines face possible criminal charges.
One drill instructor tumbled a Muslim recruit in a hot clothes dryer, according to a report from the investigation. The same instructor hazed another Muslim recruit repeatedly shortly before the recruit leapt to his death from the barracks, the report found.
The Marines declined to comment on Weaver’s accusations, and certain aspects were impossible to corroborate. Another Marine in the battalion confirmed most details of his account, but asked to remain unnamed, saying he feared being singled out for retribution.
“We were all scared, terrified,” Weaver said. “I wrote a lot of letters home about what was going on, but I tore them all up because I was afraid the drill instructors would read them.”
Hazing in Marine Corps boot camp has popped up persistently over the years, even as the leadership has added more safeguards.
The stubborn problem reveals an underlying struggle in the Marine Corps over its identity. Most officers are pushing for an inclusive and orderly force, with more women and minorities, and strict regulations to protect against abuse. But in the ranks, a widespread belief holds that the corps, which prides itself on making some of the toughest war fighters in the world, needs harsh training and must push back to preserve traditions against the creep of politically correct mediocrity.
“It’s like, they are so focused on trying to make real Marines that they don’t see how they are hurting a lot of good recruits,” said Weaver, who has begun telling his story publicly.
Weaver graduated from boot camp in July 2015, near the top of his class. He was meritoriously promoted ahead of others and planned to make a military career. But what he saw at boot camp gnawed at him until he could no longer sleep, he said, and he was too depressed to attend his next level of training. He was hospitalized in September on suicide watch. In November, he told his commander he was too depressed to train, and the Marine Corps moved to formally discipline him.
That month, Weaver’s father, Troy Weaver, contacted the commander to explain that he thought his son’s depression was a result of hazing in boot camp. His son then gave a detailed written account to his superiors about what he had seen at Parris Island, and the inquiry was opened.
In December, Weaver was kicked out of the Marine Corps for not training and given an other-than-honorable discharge used to punish bad troops. He is trying to upgrade his discharge, but the system is slow and appeals are often unsuccessful.
In a statement, the Marine Corps said that Weaver’s depression did not qualify for a medical discharge and that an other-than-honorable discharge is proper when troops refuse to train.
Despite the common image of boot camp as a place where barking sergeants in broad-brimmed hats have nearly free rein to harass recruits, strict rules control what instructors can do. They cannot swear at recruits, hit them, kick them or even touch them unless it is to provide guidance during training that regulations call “corrective action.”
Regulations also limit what the Marines call “incentive training”: extra push-ups, crunches and other exercise as punishment. There are limits, for example, on how often and for how long such exercises can be ordered, and rules require that they be performed on a padded athletic mat.
Weaver, a varsity track runner and captain of his high school soccer team who arrived at Parris Island ready to face grueling physical tests, said he soon found that drill instructors treated the rules with tongue-in-cheek contempt.
A few days into training, while being issued equipment, he said, he saw an instructor grab a recruit by the neck after a minor mistake and slam him to the ground, where he held him by the throat while swearing at him.
After choking the recruit, the instructor stood up, looked at the rest of the group and asked them whether he was hurting the recruit or “making a corrective action,” Weaver said.
“We all said ‘You were making a corrective action, sir,’” Weaver said. “We were all too scared to say anything else.”
“Every drill instructor played that card,” he added. “They would hit someone or choke someone, then made us say it was OK when they knew it wasn’t.”
Instructors forced recruits to hold stress positions on concrete until elbows and knuckles bled, he said. They often ordered recruits to form a human wall to hide punishment from view or took recruits alone into the bathroom.
Instructors singled out minority recruits they disliked for extra hazing, Weaver said, including two immigrants, a man with what Weaver called a “feminine voice” and a Muslim from Brooklyn whom instructors called “the terrorist.” Twice, Weaver said, the Muslim recruit was sent for medical attention after long bouts of extra training.
“They would just push them, try to make him fail,” Weaver said.
That recruit, who is still in the Marines, declined to comment.
Instructors hid hazing from officers, Weaver said, and officers did little to police it. Most of the abuse, he said, happened in the barracks, known in the Marine Corps as squad bays, where officers rarely ventured and where instructors said “real Marines are made.” There, Weaver said, instructors piled dozens of recruits in a small boiler room and walked on them. He also said the instructors covered the squad bay in laundry soap and ordered the recruits to push the tallest recruit along the concrete as “a human scrub brush.”
“They were always telling us, ‘What happens in the squad bay stays in the squad bay,’” Weaver said.
Recruits were warned not to report the abuse, he said, and instructors repeated a motto used in street gangs and prisons, “Snitches get stitches.”
Junior and senior instructors covered for one another, he said.
Violence was a common response to slight missteps, Weaver said. He said he saw his senior drill instructor and another instructor take one recruit into the woods after the recruit accidentally struck one of the instructors during a training exercise, and beat him bloody.
Weaver said he was grabbed by the shirt by a third instructor after inadvertently bumping into him, and that instructor slammed his head repeatedly against the doorway until other recruits pulled him away.
Weaver said that he reported the assault to his senior drill instructor, but that his instructor responded by saying that Weaver did not appear to be injured and should stay out of the instructors’ way.
Weaver also provided new details about the night in July last year when the Muslim recruit was forced into a dryer.
Late that night, he said, four or five drill instructors from another platoon came into the squad bay smelling of alcohol and screamed at recruits to lie face down on the floor. Weaver said he watched them repeatedly slap a recruit, hard enough that the blow could be heard through the barracks.
Later, Weaver said, the group returned. He watched from his bunk as they took the Muslim recruit into the laundry room.
“We heard screaming, doors being slammed, loud noises,” Weaver said. “I was scared, I didn’t know what they were doing to him.”
Afterward, Weaver said, the recruit was clearly shaken. Weaver tried to comfort him when, he said, one of his drill instructors came in and told the Muslim recruit not to report what had happened.
Weaver graduated from basic training in July and shipped off to Naval Air Station Pensacola, in Florida. But the abuse he had seen in boot camp caught up with him, he said. Bad dreams kept him from sleeping; he lost motivation to train. A lifelong runner, he lacked the energy to go for a jog on the beach, he said.
“Everyone was so proud of me, but I just saw the Marines as one big lie that I was now a part of,” he said.
After he was hospitalized for being suicidal in September, he was put on medication and began seeing a base psychologist.
In November Weaver told his commander he was not well enough to train. The psychologist treating him wrote two letters to his commander, Maj. Jenny A. Colegate, recommending a general discharge for medical reasons.
But Colegate, who in a previous assignment had trained recruits at Parris Island, ordered Weaver to return to duty. When he refused, citing the psychologist’s advice, the Marines discharged him for a “pattern of misconduct.”
Maj. Clark Carpenter, a Marine Corps spokesman, said that Colegate was not available for comment but that the discharge was technically correct because Weaver had refused to train. He added, though, that not all information had been included in the recommendation for a discharge that went for final approval, and that it was likely that if it had been included, Weaver would not have received the punitive discharge.
For months Weaver has been doing odd jobs in his neighborhood. The other-than-honorable discharge on his record has become a badge of shame and makes it hard to find work, he said.
He said he feels as if his future was taken from him.
“All I ever wanted to be was a Marine, and I was a good Marine,” he said. “But now I’m being punished for a bunch of stupid stuff that isn’t supposed to happen.”