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‘Hitler' RDC found guilty in hazing

Feb. 6, 2013 - 10:03AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2013 - 10:03AM  |  
Four of the six recruit division commanders involved in a June hazing incident at Great Lakes, Ill., received nonjudicial punishment, another pleaded guilty to multiple offenses as part of a plea deal, and the sixth was found guilty on multiple counts, including two assault charges.
Four of the six recruit division commanders involved in a June hazing incident at Great Lakes, Ill., received nonjudicial punishment, another pleaded guilty to multiple offenses as part of a plea deal, and the sixth was found guilty on multiple counts, including two assault charges. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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The recruits from Divisions 241 and 242 knew bad things usually happened when they saw Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 1st Class (AW/SW) Michael Kwon.

Kwon wasn't a stranger to these recruits, though he wasn't one of their regular recruit division commanders.

And on June 28, three weeks into their eight-week training at Great Lakes, Ill., in a compartment of the recruit barracks, he made sure they'd never forget him.

"I will be your personal Hitler," Kwon was charged by the Navy as saying to the recruits. "And you will all lose 50 pounds and look like you came out of a concentration camp."

The Navy said 167 recruits heard these words. Then, Kwon and five other RDCs forced the recruits to continually drink water and do extended instructional training exercise — far beyond authorized limits of the punitive physical training — in the cramped space with no access to bathrooms.

Ten recruits either vomited or urinated on themselves. The ITE didn't stop.

Four of the RDCs involved — three E-6s and an E-5; the Navy hasn't released their names — received nonjudicial punishment. Kwon, 25, faced a dozen charges ranging from disobeying orders or regulations to assault. Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Fuels) 1st Class (SW) Christopher Pustam, 33, faced four specifications of assault, among other charges.

Kwon's special court-martial was to begin Jan. 8, but instead he made a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to some of the charges, including the assault of a seaman recruit, at a summary court-martial — and agreeing to testify against Pustam.

One of those guilty pleas was to a cruelty and maltreatment charge that Kwon made a recruit perform ITE "in his own vomit." Another referenced the Hitler remark; "he only pled guilty to ‘referring to himself as Hitler,' vice the quoted language in the original charge," said Lt. Matthew Comer, spokesman for Navy Service Training Command.

Though those admissions could have netted Kwon 60 days' restriction, a fine of two-thirds of his pay for one month and reduction to E-5, the court sentenced him to 45 days' restriction and the fine, which amounted to $1,920. He was not busted in rank.

Pustam was convicted Jan. 17 on two of the assault charges and two other counts that involved giving recruits too much water and making them do an excessive amount of PT. The charges he was found guilty of could have netted him one year of confinement, a bad-conduct discharge, a fine of two-thirds of his pay for a year and reduction to E-1.

What he got, Comer said, was a fine of $4,659, paid by docking his pay $1,553 a month for the next three months. His command also pulled his advancement recommendation after the investigation: He'd been frocked to chief after being selected in 2011 but had yet to be permanently advanced.

Kwon was on the witness list for Pustam's trial but was not called to testify, Comer said; he did not know why.

Both sentences must be reviewed by the convening authority for the courts-martial — Capt. John Dye, commanding officer of Recruit Training Command — which usually takes between 60 and 80 days. Dye can reduce the sentences but can't make them more severe.

At the time of the incident and when the charges were filed, Rear Adm. David Steindl was commander of Naval Service Training Command.

"There will be complete accountability for this," Steindl said in August, after the charges were filed. He also said that the incident was an "isolated" one.

Still, Steindl did make policy changes, such as tightening the rules on how ITE is meted out to recruits to ensure this doesn't happen again, he said.

In December, Steindl was replaced by Rear Adm. Dee Mewborne, who was on travel and not available for an interview.

"All individuals were held accountable for their roles in the incident and are no longer entrusted with training the sailors of tomorrow," Mewborne said in a statement.

All the RDCs remain on active duty and are eligible for further assignment.

Kwon has been on active duty for only seven years. The conviction could cause him problems if he competes in the Perform-to-Serve re-enlistment approval system.

Pustam, on the other hand, will go over 14 years of service in September — a point where sailors are no longer required to apply to re-enlist. If his commanding officer recommends him for re-enlistment, it's likely he will be allowed to stay in long enough to retire.

The punishments of the six recruit division commanders involved in a June 28 incident in which 167 recruits were forced to PT in their own vomit and urine — an incident one of the recruits referred to as "pure hell":

Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 1st Class (AW/SW) Michael Kwon

• Charged with: five specifications of failing to obey an order or regulation (Article 92); three of cruelty and maltreatment; three of making false official statements; one of assault.

• Pleaded guilty to: two of the Article 92 charges, all false-statement and the assault charge as part of a plea deal.

• Sentenced to: 45 days' restriction, $1,920 fine.

Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Fuels) 1st Class (SW) Christopher Pustam

• Charged with: four specifications of failing to obey an order or regulation (Article 92); four of cruelty and maltreatment; four of assault; two of making false official statements; one of obstruction of justice.

• Convicted of: two Article 92 specifications; two assault charges.

• Sentenced to: $4,659 fine.

4 RDCs given nonjudicial punishment

The Navy did not release the names of the RDCs — three E-6s and one E-5 — but did release their charges and punishments.

• E-6: Four charges of violating Article 92, one of cruelty and maltreatment, two of making false official statements, one of assault — sentenced to 30 days' extra duties, reduction in rank to E-5, forfeiture of a half-month's pay for two months (reduced to one month pending a six-month probation).

• E-6: Four charges of violating Article 92, one of making a false official statement — sentenced to reduction in rank to E-5, forfeiture of a half-month's pay.

• E-6: Four charges of violating Article 92, one of cruelty and maltreatment, one of assault — sentenced to 30 days' extra duties, reduction in rank to E-5, forfeiture of a half-month's pay for two months (reduced to no fine pending a six-month probation).

• E-5: Four charges of violating Article 92, one of cruelty and maltreatment, two of making false official statements — sentenced to 30 days' extra duties, reduction in rank to E-4, forfeiture of a half-month's pay for two months.

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