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Training boss: Forcing recruits to sing nursery rhymes is hazing

Sep. 25, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Navy Recruits
Making recruits perform humiliating and demeaning acts is unacceptable at boot camp, a Navy official says. (Colin Kelly/Staff)
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The recruit division commander who forced his recruits to recite nursery rhymes abused his power and deserved to be punished, the head of Naval Service Training Command told Navy Times.

“The idea is to teach humility and selfless-service without sacrificing self-worth, and if we find that someone is attempting to instill militarization using techniques that don’t conform to those principals, then it’s out of line,” said Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne in a Sept. 19 interview.

Based on the admissions of the unnamed sailor — a machinist’s mate first class with eight years of service — nursery rhymes were his preferred form of punishment while training recruits at Great Lakes, Ill.

A Navy report states the MM1 admitted to:

■ Ordering a recruit to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” while performing what the Navy described as a “Soldier Boy” dance.

■ Ordering two recruits to stand on one foot and wave an arm while reciting “I’m a Little Teapot.”

■ Ordering two recruits to recite “Jack and Jill.”

He also admitted to non-nursery rhyme tactics: He reportedly propped a ruler on a recruit’s ball cap and instructed the recruit not to let it fall. He also woke up two sleeping recruits, one by brushing dog tags across the recruit’s face and another by removing the recruit’s pillow.

Capt. John Dye, head of Recruit Training Command, made the decision Sept. 10 to punish the RDC and return him to the fleet. Dye docked him half a month’s pay for two months. As long as he stays out of trouble for the next six months, he won’t be busted in rank.

When Navy Times first reported the case, many readers spoke out in defense of the sailor, saying the service was being too politically correct.

But Mewbourne, Dye’s boss, said the captain made the right call and stressed that RDCs must set a positive example.

“The major way that we try to teach is by by active, enduring and exemplary mentorship and through repetitiveness,” he said. “We hold recruits to a set of standards and make them execute to those standards.”

Don't demean or humiliate

Mewbourne said the RDC’s behavior wasn’t labeled hazing until the investigation found a pattern.

“The initial report, that at least I was given, was that there was an RDC who made a recruit sing the ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ lyric,” he said. “So, from the initial report, this would be a violation of training protocol and not necessarily hazing in and among itself.”

This first incident occurred May 12 in the USS Triton recruit barracks. A recruit reported it the next day, Mewbourne said, and the RDC was removed from training pending an investigation.

It was during the probe that the multiple incidents came to light.

“We do a very thorough investigation anytime there’s an allegation of misconduct, and this was no different,” he said.

When asked about the several-month delay between the alleged incident taking place and the captain’s mast, Mewbourne admitted it was “less than optimal.” But he said it was excusable, given the workload at the command during the summer, when the the influx of new recruits increases dramatically.

“A combination of the high workload in the summer, coupled with the fact we’re down some staff that normally work in the legal office, resulted in this case essentially not being processed through RTC legal as timely as we would like,” Mewbourne said.

Dye held a semi-open captain’s mast, meaning key leaders from the command were invited to attend the proceedings. The hope was that the sailor could be used as an “instructional moment if there was any doubt [at the command] as to what is tolerated and what is not,” Mewbourne said.

Once the mast was over, Dye had an all-hands call with all the RDCs, to tell them what happened and to reiterate the rules.

However, Mewbourne said the rules should already be very clear to those RDCs, as they are instilled early in their training.

“They follow a very rigorous 13-week syllabus in which they teach what is hazing and what is not, what are good militarization types of tools and techniques,” he said. “What it generally all boils down to is, if you’re using a technique in which you’re trying to teach something that has a military purpose, then that would be good. But if you’re doing something for your own amusement, or any time you’re doing what would be humiliating or demeaning, then you’ve crossed the line.”

Mewbourne also tasked Dye with an assignment: To put in writing what more can be done to ensure this behavior doesn’t happen again.

“We obviously had one person doing this,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything in our power to prevent recurrence.”

Mewbourne said Dye has already ordered inspection tours around all the Great Lakes “ships,” conducted by officers and leading chief and master petty officers. He also reinstituted a master chief review board that would look at all minor disciplinary infractions.

“It would be the equivalent of more peer-to-peer accountability, [so] that master chiefs are holding their junior chiefs and petty officers more accountable,” Mewbourne said.

He also said that from now on, Dye would “personally meet with each RDC as they finish their academic phase of training” but before they begin their “shadow phase,” where they follow regular RDCs and conduct training under their supervision.

'We are all outraged'

Navy Times received hundreds of responses from readers after first reporting this story Sept. 12. Many respondents were former or retired sailors who defended the RDC and accused the Navy of going soft.

“If the only thing that [RDC] did was make them sing and dance, then we are all outraged,” said retired Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class (AW/NAC) Ed Walters.

Walters, now a defense contractor, said the topic has caused quite a stir among his friends and fellow veterans. He was hoping to get the sailor’s identity so he can launch a fundrasing effort to restore the RDC’s reduced wages.

“This sailor should have been applauded for being so nice, not condemned for hazing. If our current leaders think that is hazing then they are training the most pathetic military in the world,” he said.

Many agreed.

“What’s next? NJP for cursing?” asked another Navy Times reader.

“I just want to know who is responsible for turning boot camp into some kind of summer vacation camp,” said another. “Does the initial issue include Pampers and formula?”

The Navy did have its defenders — a reader on Facebook named C.j. Abel, for example, who identified himself as an RDC at Great Lakes.

“A good leader does not have to resort to demeaning and humiliating recruits to get your point across,” he said. “There are many ways of taking care of business that are effective. I see this RDC’s actions as a mockery of those of us that are dedicated to training and turning out premium quality recruits.”

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