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Navy leaders try to stamp out hazing, but many sailors question the rules

Jul. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
hazing office details MWM 20130625
It's a challenge to explain what is and isn't hazing, even with the SECNAV instruction, which explicitly outlaws a handful of actions including 'greasing,' 'taping' and 'striking.' (Mike Morones / Staff)
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YOUR TAKE

How do you define hazing? Is it a problem in the Navy? Send your comments to navylet@navytimes.com.

Hazing is any action that is 'cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning or harmful.'

Hazing is any action that is 'cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning or harmful.'

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Hazing is any action that is “cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning or harmful.”

That’s the definition used by the Navy’s Office of Hazing Prevention, and it comes from SECNAV Instruction 1610.2A. That definition is “very clear,” said Rear Adm. Ted Carter, the first flag to oversee the Navy’s new hazing office, and whose mission includes helping the fleet gauge what constitutes illegal horseplay.

But when Carter was pressed, explaining what’s hazing and what isn’t becomes murky.

Can someone be whipped with a fire-hose shillelagh on “wog day”? No — that’s hazing, Carter says.

What if you’re sprayed with a hose? Well, that could be hazing, but it depends on how high the water pressure is. And if you’re just getting splashed from a bucket, that’s allowed.

What about covering sailors with grease?

That depends on the type of grease, though none is defined in the instruction. If it’s engine lube or the like, that’s poison and definitely hazing, Carter reasoned. But what about the vegetable shortening used during the Naval Academy’s annual Herndon Monument climb? Carter was surprised to learn they’re still greasing the obelisk and said it merits another look if the tradition can cause injury, which it has.

How about shaving someone’s eyebrows to celebrate service selection? While it could potentially be demeaning and “shaving” is outlawed in the SECNAV instruction, it’s OK that SEAL candidates have been subjected to this because it’s “unique to the requirements of being in the special forces community,” Carter said.

In short, it’s a challenge to explain what is and isn’t hazing, even with the SECNAV instruction, which explicitly outlaws a handful of actions including “greasing,” “taping” and “striking.”

Navy Times asked sailors to weigh in and received more than 100 emails and comments from active-duty sailors and old salts. The majority defended some of the hijinks that more-senior sailors inflict on their juniors, claiming the acts weren’t hazing and brought the command closer together. But a handful said things can and do get out of hand and agreed with leaders — hazing has no business in the Navy.

The hazing office tracks fleetwide reports of hazing and has logged 30 cases so far in fiscal 2013. Those include 18 substantiated cases, two unsubstantiated cases and 10 still under investigation. The office provided brief descriptions of the incidents and there are some serious ones, including physical assault and even “abusive sexual contact.”

But there’s also the case of a sleeping sailor who had Tabasco poured in his mouth. Is this hazing, or just a harmless prank?

“There’s no question that that’s harmful, or could be harmful,” Carter said. “I mean, you could have somebody choke, you could have them die in their sleep. You have to understand, there’s no safety valve in that, and there’s nothing in there that’s tied to any of ourtraditions.”

Hazing office mission

The Office of Hazing Prevention stood up Feb. 20 under the chief of naval personnel to better track hazing and help eliminate it. The office plans to grow an incident database and inform new policy for better reporting and education.

“The idea of this office is to ... help educate our sailors to understand that horseplay that demeans or harms, whether it be physical or psychological to our sailors, is not OK,” Carter said.

The office is staffed by one lieutenant commander, who has resources both at Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tenn., and at the chief of naval personnel’s office in Washington. Carter stepped down as the head of theoffice June 26, shortly after talking with Navy Times about the mission.

The hazing office is one section of the 21st Century Sailor Office, which Carter also led. This officeis trying to create a more resilient force through oversight on fitness, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide prevention, family and physical readiness, sexual assault, sexual harassment, hazing, transition assistance and equal opportunity.

Rear Adm. Sean Buck, a naval flight officer who previously served as the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Group in Norfolk, Va., is now leading it. Buck was in D.C. beginning his turnover and sat in on Carter’s interview with Navy Times, but was only there to listen. He was unavailable for subsequent interview requests.

Expect some action items from the office soon. For one, it plans to launch an anti-hazing campaign that also explains how sailors can report incidents. Sailors who have been hazed or witnessed hazing can report it up the chain of their command or reach out to their command management equal opportunity officer, or a chaplain.

Once a situation report is filed at any command in the Navy, officials are required to forward it to the hazing prevention office within 24 hours. The office records this incident and then also receives a follow-up of any related punishments associated with the case. Navy Times sought additional context of each case through the office and was informed the office does not receive command investigations, which would provide additional information — the back story on those potentially fatal Tabasco shots, for example.

Navy Times also sought command names for each of the reported hazing incidents, but had not received them as of press time.

As part of the efforts to reduce hazing, the Navy is planning to once again call for more bystander intervention.

“Refusing to intervene to prevent an instance of hazing will be taken just as seriously as those that participate in hazing behavior,” said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty.

Carter said the office was considering whether to punish silent bystanders, but it’s more about encouraging sailors.

“We want to empower every sailor to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t OK, it’s not OK with me and I ask you to stop,’ ” he said.

Sailors on hazing

Sailors who wrote Navy Times did not condone physical harm, but said weakening “crossing-the-line” ceremonies or banning the practice of tacking (i.e. punching) on crows has made the Navy soft.

Crossing-the-line ceremonies involve “shellbacks,” or those who have crossed the equator before, initiating the “pollywogs,” or junior sailors, crossing the equator for the first time. In the past, the ceremony has involved being whipped with a cut-up fire hose or kissing the exposed belly of a chief deemed “King Neptune.”

Today’s ceremonies are tamer: The wogs often have to dress up, sing or chant and get hosed down or splashed with water buckets.

“War is stressful, battles are dangerous,” said a hospital corpsman in Virginia. “We need to be tough on each other so that we know we can count on each other when things go downhill.”

Carter did not provide much sympathy to sailors longing for initiation rites from the old days.

“If somebody says they’re missing something because they want to be hit with a cut-up fire hose because that was done 30 years ago, then they need to go somewhere else,” he said.

But many sailors believe these grueling and embarrassing ceremonies ultimately built stronger relationships.

Logistics Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Maria Conway said that she had her third-class crow tacked on and that, while it may have hurt, she felt she gained “a sense of belonging.”

“I ... had a bruise the size of the diameter of a pop can on my arm,” she wrote. “Did it hurt? Yes. Did I let them see me cry? No, and I was no worse for wear.”

Carter described tacking on as “one of the dumbest traditions I’ve ever seen. ”

One of the most important things for sailors to remember, Carter said, is that their shipmates are safe — from both physical and emotional harm. He said some events, like crossing-the-line ceremonies, can and should continue, but with safety mechanisms.

Carter said the Navy has had success in taming down crossing-the-line and making it voluntary.

“If somebody says, ‘I’m not comfortable with this, I don’t want to do this,’ they raise their hand and get taken out of the ceremony,” Carter said. Oftentimes these sailors still get a “Golden Shellback” card.

But one sailor wrote to say she was ostracized by her command after declining to participate.

This female yeoman second class in San Diego said she decided not to participate in a 2007 ceremony aboard a destroyer because she did not think it was appropriate for women in white T-shirts to be hosed down by their superiors.

“The primary response that was received from others was that I was not a real sailor, and I was basically downgraded and sometimes laughed at,” she said. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic and say that I was harassed for it, but I definitely felt as if others thought they were better than me.”

Some sailors wondered how an action could be considered hazing if the ones being “hazed” consent.

Information Systems Technician 2nd Class (SW) Daniel Colon said he believes hazing is “unwanted, nonconsensual abuse.”

“If a sailor goes along with it, and it is deemed OK by them, I don’t see a problem,” he said.

Carter warned against this mentality and pointed out it can fast-track you to a nonjudicial punishment or worse.

“If I ask someone to do something that clearly crosses the intent of that [hazing] instruction and they say, ‘Oh, I’m happy to participate in that,’ that does not relieve you of responsibility in this,” Carter said.

Future of hazing

Just like the recent spike in sexual assault cases in the Navy, Carter expects to see an increase in the number of reported hazing incidents as sailors become more aware of what hazing is and how to report it.

“I think eventually we’ll see the 30 number that we’re at so far for this year also start to go down to where we’re down to very, very small numbers, single digits and eventually almost to be unheard of,” Carter said.

When asked about issuing harsher punishments, he said he believes the existing rules are satisfactory. Of the 18 substantiated cases so far this year, “many of those result in a sailor being sent home from the Navy,” Carter said. “We’re not just talking little slaps on the wrist here, we’re talking significant punishment that goes with this behavior.”

Punishments for hazing can range from NJP to general court-martial. Navy Times asked for the specific punishments doled out for each of the 18 cases, but had received no response as of press time.

The creation of the office is only the Navy’s latest move to stamp out hazing. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens in January ordered an end to any “shenanigans” oft-associated with chief petty officer induction. He even ended use of the term “induction” for its association with hazinglike behavior.

During an exclusive interview with Navy Times in March, Stevens revealed that he had been hazed during his own chief’s initiation and forced to eat a number of unpleasant things covered in whipped cream “that would exercise your gag reflexes.”

“They were edible. They did not kill me,” he said. “That was one of the things that we did back then to earn the rite of passage.”

Stevens and Carter both say that times have changed.

“We’re not trying to behave like fraternity houses,” the admiral said. “We got real missions to do. We want to teach, whether you’re a noncommissioned officer or an officer, how to be in a professional military corps. Our military missions remain the same, but how we act and how we treat each other matters at the end of the day.

“That itself is a war-fighting issue.”

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