Former Pvt. Thomas Jacob Weaver was in bed late one night, near the end of his three months at Marine Corps boot camp, when several drill instructors burst into his platoon’s room. Many of them smelled like they had been drinking whiskey, he said, and they ordered the recruits to crawl over cement floors covered in laundry detergent.
Soon after, the instructors left the room and then abruptly returned. One of them demanded to know where he could find “the terrorist.” Weaver knew immediately who he was talking about: a fellow Marine recruit who was Muslim.
“We heard the door slam, and then we heard screaming, and then we heard loud noises, and then they left,” Weaver said. “And then I saw ⅛the recruit⅜ come back half-naked, and some of us ran over to check on him. And he told us that they had stuck him in the dryer for a couple of minutes and let him spin.”
That night in July 2015 was one of the last experiences for Weaver at Parris Island, S.C., one of the military’s best-known boot camps. He graduated with plans to follow the footsteps of his uncles who had been Marines.
Within months, he began suffering a breakdown. He was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts and refused to continue training at Pensacola, Fla. He was sent home with an “other-than-honorable” discharge, according to military documents.
In November, he and his father, Troy, began fighting his discharge, saying his breakdown was the result of the abusive environment at Parris Island.
“They say it’s a rite of passage to us,” said Weaver, 21, of the abuse. “That that’s why they put us through hell. But in no way is it benefiting us, or anything. It’s pointless. I just felt like someone has to say something, and I know I’m probably going to get a lot of flak and whatnot, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Weaver was the first to step forward with allegations that have now spawned the biggest investigation at Parris Island in decades and prompted concerns among defense officials and lawmakers about how the service’s boot camps are run.
Among Weaver’s allegations in addition to the dryer incident: Drill instructors took one recruit into the woods and beat him after a mistake on a rifle range, repeatedly slammed Weaver’s head into a door frame another day and forced recruits to lay down so drill instructors could walk on them.
“It was terrifying at times,” Weaver said. “There are countless times where I experienced hazing from our drill instructors and there was abuse going on in the company. It wasn’t just one period of boot camp - it was the whole three months of it.”
His accounts were substantiated in a Marine Corps investigation that concluded in April, a few weeks after another recruit - Raheel Siddiqui, 20 - fell three stories to his death while running away from one of the same drill instructors who was involved in putting Weaver’s fellow recruit in the dryer. Up to 20 Marines could face criminal or administrative punishment in the cases, and senior Marine officers already have removed several Parris Island officials from their jobs - some at least in part for not taking Weaver’s allegations seriously.
Parris Island, which was famously depicted in the Stanley Kubrick movie “Full Metal Jacket,” has faced scandals before. The most infamous occurred in 1956, when six recruits drowned in the “Ribbon Creek” incident after a drill instructor led his platoon at night into swampy water. The case prompted a congressional investigation, and the service established drill instructor schools and assigned a commanding general to boot camps on both coasts.
The Marine Corps’ drill instructors learn in 12-week programs that they must never physically abuse recruits. Instead, a variety of “incentive training” exercises with time limits are authorized, including pushups, crunches and running in place.
But a culture of hazing and bullying recruits remains, and not just at Parris Island, according to former drill instructors.
Sean Legaard, who served as a drill instructor in San Diego from 2010 to early 2014, said that none of his colleagues wanted to be labeled a “recruit lover,” and those who were faced retribution from peers. A drill instructor who pushes a recruit to “tap” - to either quit or confess thoughts of suicide - is well regarded, and may bend or break rules to get there, he said.
Legaard, 30, said that he once considered making a career of the Marine Corps, but left the service disenchanted after facing and dishing out what is known as “hat hazing,” in which drill instructors harass one another.
Hat hazing, named after the distinctive wide-brimmed hats worn by the instructors, has been prohibited for years. But Legaard recalled complying with an order to lock a fellow drill instructor out of their shared sleeping quarters at the recruit depot, forcing a colleague to instead sleep in his vehicle.
“It was like, ‘Do I really have to do this to be welcome here and successful?’” Legaard said. “You don’t want to be called a recruit lover and you want to slay yourself just so that you’re accepted. It’s all alpha-male stuff.”
Senior Marine officials, including Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, have said that recruits must be trained with respect and stressed that most drill instructors carry out their duties faithfully. The service also has promised more reforms, including adding more supervisory officers, cracking down on “hat hazing,” and requiring the suspension of anyone under investigation for hazing or abuse of training recruits.
But the full extent of the recent mistreatment at the Marine Corps’ boot camps is not known. Hundreds of hazing and abuse cases have been investigated in the last few years at Parris Island alone, and a third of them have been substantiated, according to Marine Corps documents. Most of those cases have received no attention outside the service, and Marine officials have thus far declined to release nearly any details about them.
Retired Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, who oversaw boot camp training from May 2008 to August 2010 as commander of the service’s Training and Education Command, said he is “offended and massively bothered” by any effort in the Defense Department to withhold information that “belongs to the American people.”
“Those are the sons and daughters of Americans, they are Americans, and the services and leaders are accountable to the nation for how they are handled and treated,” he said. “I believe transparency and accountability would have been helpful - it would have forced a very hard internal look of not just trying to clean things up, but answer questions.”
In one case, former Sgt. Jeffrey VanDyke was convicted in 2014 of numerous allegations of cruelty and maltreatment, assault and failure to obey a lawful order after an incident in which he forced a recruit to perform illegal exercises at Parris Island after his uniform was splashed with bleach, said a Marine official, disclosing details about the case on condition of anonymity due to its sensitivity. The recruit suffered significant chemical burns as a result. VanDyke’s sentence included one year of confinement at the Navy’s brig in Charleston, S.C., a demotion to private and a bad-conduct discharge. VanDyke could not be reached for comment.
Another drill instructor, former Sgt. Jerome Fleming, was convicted in 2010 of several crimes after directing a recruit at Parris Island to masturbate and record a video of the act, according to a military court document. Fleming was sentenced to a reduction in rank to private, a bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of pay and benefits and three years of confinement, half of which was suspended. He could not be reached for comment.
Former drill instructors at Parris Island said the boot camp has faced problems in part because it has been understaffed. Three or four drill instructors are typically assigned to each platoon. During the summer months, the size of the platoons can balloon from the preferred 60 or 70 to 100 recruits, said a recent drill instructor, former Sgt. Korey Bromery.
It also can be difficult for the Marine Corps to find the right people to become drill instructors, who face constant stress, exhausting days in and frequent nights spent at boot camp with recruits instead of at home with their families, Bromery said.
Bromery said the boot camps do not have a widespread culture of abuse, but that he saw a rise in the number of troubling incidents towards the end of his service. He said he successfully trained eight platoons of recruits over three years and was in line for a meritorious promotion when he reported VanDyke, the instructor responsible for the bleaching incident.
The investigation that followed also ensnared Bromery because he had previously ordered Marines to do illegal pushups in the showers, he said. He was accused of pouring bleach in the drain to thin the air at the time, but that part wasn’t true, he said.
Bromery’s court-martial, first reported in 2014 by the independent Marine Corps Times, resulted in an unusual sentence in which he was convicted of cruelty and maltreatment for leading unauthorized incentive training, but sentenced to no punishment. However, he was not allowed to reenlist in the military.
“Yeah, I made a mistake by making recruits doing pushups in the head,” Bromery said, using military jargon to describe the bathroom. “But was that really worth ending my career?”
He added: “I don’t think my drill instructors necessarily followed all the rules when I was a recruit, but it made me into a good Marine.”
Weaver and his family are still trying to redeem his service record. They are planning an appeal to the Navy Discharge Review Board, and are searching for legal help.
After Weaver’s father contacted Marine officials again in July, the officer who approved the other-than-honorable discharge, recently retired Col. Jon Sachrison, said in an affidavit that he did not know that Weaver’s doctors had linked his condition to his time at Parris Island. Sachrison said he would have given Weaver an honorable discharge if he had known.
Julie Tate and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.