Recruits are seen Aug. 30 at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. More than 160 recruits were PT'd to the point of hazing, Navy officials say, and six RDCs now face charges. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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For the recruits of divisions 241 and 242, the extra physical training seemed ordinary at first. And then things got real nasty — and real dangerous.
The 167 recruits of these divisions were not new to so-called "instructional training exercise," or ITE, which allows recruit division commanders to use punitive PT to "motivate" recruits in the wrong.
But on June 28, in their third week of training, these recruits were pushed too far, Navy officials say, and were hazed.
Three former recruits — the class has since graduated — who spoke to Navy Times on condition of anonymity relayed a vile scene. All have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.
They say they were forced into cramped quarters and made to blockade the bathrooms. From there, they had to repeatedly chug water and PT. The punishment continued, even as 10 recruits vomited or urinated on themselves.
"At that point, it just became pure hell," Recruit Jones said. Though accounts differ on exactly how the PT session played out, it remains a chief issue of concern at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill.
RTC officials would neither confirm nor deny the recruits' accounts, but in referencing the investigation, said there are many varying witness statements.
Six RDCs allegedly involved will face an Article 32 hearing on Wednesday to determine what disciplinary action, if any, each will face for the incident.
RTC's leaders say the RDCs hazed recruits — the first such incident at Great Lakes to come to light in at least five years.
One chief petty officer, four petty officers first class and one petty officer second class were officially charged Aug. 8 in the June 28 incident in one of the recruit barracks.
Charges include cruelty and maltreatment, assault, obstructing justice, making false official statements and failure to obey a lawful order.
"There will be complete accountability for this," said Rear Adm. David Steindl, who commands Naval Service Training Command. RTC is part of his command, along with all officer accession programs except for the Naval Academy. "Our job is to make sailors from civilians, and in doing that, we take the safety of our recruits very seriously."
Even though he said he believes the hazing incident is "isolated," Steindl has taken additional measures, including policy changes, to ensure this doesn't happen again.
When the recruits of divisions 241 and 242 returned to their barracks the afternoon of June 28, they were ordered to move all the bunks to the sides of the compartment, as is common when extra space is needed for formations and physical training.
"This time, though, we were specifically told to block off the heads," said Recruit Smith. "We knew something different was up."
The Navy's official account as to why recruits faced extra PT was because of "poor performance" as a division.
But the recruits gave a different reason.
"We were told that one recruit didn't hydrate properly today," said Recruit Smith. "We would be taught a lesson to make sure that didn't happen again."
Each RDC carries an ITE card that spells out 11 calisthenic exercises — including jumping jacks, pushups and sit-ups — that can be used for instructional training, with maximum reps and durations. The card states exercises are "used solely to correct substandard performance by individual or groups of recruits."
Recruit Roberts, part of Division 241, alleged that RDCs had given them ITE "almost daily and sometimes twice a day up until that point."
"We'd had longer sessions, but nothing like what happened that day," Recruit Roberts added.
In an interview with Navy Times, these recruits claim there was a chief instigator among the RDCs who was not assigned to either division.
"Whenever this RDC was present — and he wasn't our RDC — we knew we were going to get ITE," Recruit Roberts said. "He would just show up at odd times and things would happen — and usually ITE."
Steindl wouldn't provide details of what exactly happened but confirmed there was a "full spectrum here of involvement."
"Some weren't very involved at all, and it will become clear who the ringleaders of this were [after the Article 32 hearings]," he said.
As the ITE started, recruits say they were ordered to guzzle down all the water in their bottles and then were ordered to refill them and guzzle it all again. When asked how many times they were forced to refill and guzzle their water, none of the recruits could give an exact number.
"I lost count," said Recruit Jones. "After a while that just didn't matter anymore."
For decades, recruits in training wore olive drab military web belts — "guard belts," in RTC parlance — on which hung a canteen in a olive pouch.
But with the advent of the Navy working uniform, the service approved use of plain black backpacks, and the guard belts went away. Instead of a canteen, recruits receive clear plastic bottles that hold 32 ounces, or one quart, of water.
Recruits claim the RDCs did not play by the rules spelled out on ITE cards.
"The RDC holding the card would pass it off to someone else and then start giving exercise orders," Recruit Jones said.
All three recruits interviewed said the PT took place during the course of an hour, but Steindl said witness statements put the time at about 45 minutes.
The repeated drinking of water and the unavailability of toilets took its toll on the group, and sailors started losing control of their bodily functions.
Some urinated and others threw up, the recruits said.
"It was maybe 10 or so sailors in all who ended up having problems," Recruit Smith said.
But the floor was getting messy, causing others to slip. Those closest to the sick recruits were still exercising, putting their bellies and backs in the mess, all three recruits said.
"We weren't allowed to stop," Recruit Jones said. "And of course, we couldn't stop to clean ourselves or our shipmates up, either."
When the ITE session was finally stopped, the recruits had to clean up the barracks floor.
"We really didn't know any better and thought this was just how boot camp was," said Recruit Smith. "We were so used to ITE at this point that we all believed what happened was normal and was just how it was."
Of the 167 recruits subjected to the alleged hazing, nine were discharged for a "variety of reasons," said Lt. Matt Comer, spokesman for Navy Service Training Command. "This number is lower than our average attrition rate."
Year-to-date for fiscal 2012, the attrition rate is 10.7 percent. The two divisions allegedly hazed had an attrition rate of about half that.
Since the Aug. 10 graduation, most recruits have gone on to further training or their first commands. One recruit from the division remains at RTC in the recruit convalescent unit for an unrelated incident, officials said.
‘This is cruelty'
RTC's leadership learned of the hazing the next day, when some of the recruits went to medical with what was diagnosed as water poisoning, caused by forcing down too much water, officials said.
The RDCs in question were removed from the job, and an investigation began. Replacement RDCs led the divisions for the remainder of their training.
Steindl said that of the 167 recruits who received ITE, about 80 chose to make written statements about what happened. When the investigation wrapped up, the six RDCs were charged.
"To me, this is cruelty," Steindl said. "When these facts came to light on June 29, we took immediate action to relieve the RDCs, and we will hold those responsible fully accountable for what went on."
In the meantime, the six accused RDCs do not have any contact with recruits, Steindl said.
Along with possible disciplinary action, Steindl has implemented policy changes related to ITE and other RDC conduct issues that add accountability and oversight.
Most of the new rules guide how ITE is meted out to large groups, such as the two whole divisions in the June 28 incident.
Under the new guidance, before ITE can begin, an RDC must request permission from his leading chief or officer in writing. Once approved, that request must be posted for all to see on the wall of the recruit compartment; while the ITE is going on, the compartment door must remain open.
Meanwhile, announcements are made over the loudspeaker that ITE has begun and ended.
The ITE start and stop time also should be entered into the deck log maintained by recruit barracks, which are referred to as "ships."
There are also new rules regarding where recruits can perform ITE. It must occur in larger, open areas. Smaller rooms, such as showers and closets, are forbidden, Steindl said.
Limited now are the number of RDCs who can be present when the ITE is given. Except for the ship leadership, such as senior chief and ship's officer, no others are allowed to be present.
Finally, only one division can perform ITE at a time. The June 28 incident had two divisions in one compartment, creating a space issue, Steindl said.
All these changes amount to "increased oversight," Steindl said. "We have also reworked the standards and conduct instruction we have at RTC to ensure that there are not gray areas in our policies on ITE and hazing."
He didn't detail what changes were made, only to say that there are no gray areas when it comes to RDC conduct and that all have been required to read and sign service record entries stating they understand what's expected of them.
"Our job at RTC is to take civilians and make them sailors in eight weeks," Steindl said. "The safety of these recruits is our top priority, and we take that responsibility very seriously."
Steindl said with about 600 RDCs pushing nearly 40,000 active and Selective Reserve recruits through each year, it's not easy.
"Ninety-nine percent of RDCs have successful tours here and are doing wonderful things," he said. "But when we hear about potential misconduct, we investigate it fully, and if misconduct is found, we hold those responsible fully accountable for their actions."