Marine DIs in Hazing Scandal Played 'Fast and Loose with the Rules'

FILE -- Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, commanding officer of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, gives a tour of the 3rd Battalion barracks, Oct. 9, 2014, on Parris Island, S.C. (Photos by Cpl. David Bessey)
FILE -- Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, commanding officer of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, gives a tour of the 3rd Battalion barracks, Oct. 9, 2014, on Parris Island, S.C. (Photos by Cpl. David Bessey)

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- Marine Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon pleaded guilty Monday to charges at a special court-martial and was sentenced for his part in an explosive hazing scandal linked to the suicide of a Muslim recruit.

Kissoon, a former Marine recruit training battalion commander, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty, making a false official statement and conduct unbecoming an officer as part of a pre-trial agreement.

U.S. Navy Capt. Charles Purnell, who presided over the proceeding, sentenced Kissoon to forfeit $1,000 of his pay per month for five months and to receive a letter of reprimand.

Kissoon was fired amid the hazing scandal in 2016. During an Article 32 investigative hearing last year, witnesses testified that he had failed to remove a drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, from his role supervising recruits while an investigation into allegations of hazing was being conducted.

Kissoon pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty, admitting that he had knowledge Felix was the subject of a pending misconduct investigation but assigned the instructor to a senior drill instructor position without receiving approval from the regimental commander, according to testimony.

He also pleaded guilty to willful dereliction of duty for failing to notify the regimental commander of a recruit abuse complaint against another drill instructor; the complaint alleged the instructor had "put his foot into the back of a recruit while he was in the pushup position," Kissoon testified.

He admitted that he willfully failed to convene a preliminary inquiry into the incident within 24 hours of receiving notice of the allegation.

Kissoon pleaded guilty to making a false official statement during an Inspector General investigation. He admitted telling his subordinate officers that a Marine officer had made comments in an anonymous command climate survey, criticizing Kissoon's philosophy of using non-punitive letters of caution as a means of discipline.

But Kissoon then lied to the IG investigator when asked if he made those comments, he admitted in court.

Kissoon pleaded guilty to the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer for providing his executive officer a copy of his statement to the IG investigator after being instructed not to discuss the investigation with anyone.

Kissoon was one of three senior leaders fired at Parris Island amid widespread hazing allegations within 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, which Kissoon commanded. The worst of the accusations involved Felix, who allegedly threw a Muslim recruit into an industrial dryer in a nighttime interrogation-style hazing ritual.

Felix was later implicated in a Marine Corps investigation that found drill instructor mistreatment may have provided the impetus for the suicide of another Muslim recruit, 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, in March 2016.

"I know I have made regrettable mistakes," Kissoon said at his court-martial. "I am extremely disappointed in myself. I must be held accountable."

Felix was sentenced to 10 years in prison and received a dishonorable discharge in the hazing case.

The sentence Kissoon received was far less than the maximum punishment the prosecution recommended as part of his pre-trial agreement. Kissoon faced a maximum penalty of forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for 12 months, two months of restriction and further administrative actions, such as a letter of reprimand.

Kissoon's forfeiture of pay will not begin for six months, Purnell said.

As part of his pre-trial agreement, Kissoon will retire from the Marine Corps, and he waived his right to a board of inquiry hearing before the secretary of the Navy decides upon his retirement grade.

Lt. Col. Edward Danielson, the former commander of 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, told the court by phone that Kissoon was battling a culture in his battalion that hadn't changed much over the past 70 years.

When Kissoon took command of 3rd Battalion, it was known as " 'Thumpin Third' for a reason," Danielson said, explaining that the drill instructors had a reputation of playing "fast and loose with the rules."

"He recognized you can't change decades of culture overnight," said Danielson, who served as a witness for the defense. "He understood the culture he was dealing with."

Danielson said that, despite the command's message that prohibited hazing, there was a "DI climate" that often operated on the understanding of "that's just what they say because they've got to, but let me tell how we really do things."

The company commanders in the battalion, young officers impressed by the drill instructors, would often be reluctant to report a DI for hazing or abuse, he said.

"When you take over, you've got four company commanders that are already in place," Danielson said.

"Today is about accountability for Lt. Col. Kissoon," said trial counsel Marine Reserve Lt. Col. Sridhar Kaza, who depicted Kissoon as a leader who took a lenient approach to recruit discipline to protect his command and career from criticism.

During the sentencing phase of the proceeding, Kaza argued that Kissoon had seen a draft investigation of the allegations against Felix and that Kissoon knew that his actions "were full of prejudice and hate."

Colby Vokey, Kissoon's defense attorney, objected, arguing that the case against Felix was not relevant to case against Kissoon, but to no avail.

Kaza also argued that Kissoon made the decisions he did regarding Felix because he believed the investigation would result only in Felix being counseled for his actions.

"It was about doing what needed to be done, limiting what was going up to regiment," Kaza said.

Vokey argued that when Kissoon took command of the 3rd battalion, he was given "the mission to change the reputation of Thumpin Third."

"He wanted to fight recruit abuse, and he got a lot of blowback for this," Vokey said.

Upon issuing Kissoon's sentence, Purnell said it was clear to him that there were "myriad failures of leadership" that went beyond Kissoon's actions in this case.

Vokey said he was pleased with the outcome of the case.

"I think it's the right result, and I think Lt. Col. Kissoon took responsibility for what happened under his command," he said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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