Since it began tracking reports in 2012, the Navy has defined hazing as any behavior that is cruel, abusive, oppressive, humiliating, demeaning or harmful.

Until this year, that has included everything from "tacking on" warfare pins to the great mouseburger prank of 2014 (yes, that was a dead mouse on the burger bun). But most of the service's reports don't fall into the traditional "initiation" category that hazing describes. Now that's changing as the Navy moves to crack down on bullying, whether on the deckplates or in cyberspace.

"The range of types of behaviors that could be falling under hazing is broad, purposefully, to cast a wide net on what kind of behaviors we don’t tolerate," said Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt, head of the 21st Century Sailor office that oversees hazing prevention efforts. 

Navy officials say they've made headway to deflate the deckplate culture that tolerated maltreatment as part of initiation rites for decades and that the next front is cracking down on bullying, aboard ships and in cyberspace, where it's becoming increasingly common. 

The Defense Department has laid out new guidelines that separate hazing and bullying, ordering the services to begin tracking them accordingly and reporting results annually. 

"The behavioral definitions around hazing, bullying, sexual harassment are clear," Burkhardt added in an interview. "Commanding officers, then, in a broad sense, can apply the right levers in their own commands to effect good order and discipline."

NAV hazing pacifier

The Navy is targeting bullies after hazing report dropped.
Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Staff

The fight against hazing is decades-old and must contend with a culture that in some quarters celebrates demeaning or abusive rituals as something that toughens junior officers and enlisted. That cultural acceptance can make it difficult for people to identify hazing when they see it, an expert told Navy Times.

"First of all, there is research that shows that there’s a disconnect between somebody being able to define hazing and knowing that they have either been a victim a witness or a perpetrator of hazing," said Dr. Susan Lipkins, a renowned psychologist and author of the book, "Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation."

"What we don’t know about that disconnect is, is it that they don’t know, or is it that they want to deny it because they’re covering up and trying to protect the group or themselves?" she said in a phone interview. "I would say most victims would like to diminish what happened to them. They're afraid of retribution, afraid of social isolation."

And in the military, where hierarchy and allegiance to the group are of the utmost importance, it can be fraught for victims to call out abuse or for bystanders to intervene.

"The code of silence is something that exists in all groups, even nursery school kids, and it is extremely strong in the military," Lipkins said. "What goes on in the locker room stays in the locker room, and that occurs in every group, especially in the military. "

The 21st Century Sailor office, which tracks these incidents, has seen a drop in hazing reports in the last two years. Officials see the drop as a sign their anti-hazing training is preventing new hazing cases and that victims and witnesses have the confidence to come forward. 

A new definition

According to the December 2015 Defense Department memo, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, the Navy along with other military services will now have to define hazing as taking place in an initiation context. Think mistreatment at a training command, or for new arrivals to a ship. Could even be unauthorized activities during a sanctioned event like a crossing the line ceremony.

"Hazing involves so-called initiations or rites of passage in which individuals are subjected to physical or psychological harm in order to achieve status or inclusion in a military or Department of Defense civilian organization," he wrote.

Other incidents, like the dozens of non-ritual pranks, verbal assaults and horseplay that the Navy has tracked as hazing, will be tracked as bullying. This will also be patrolled in cyberspace, where Navy personnel who threaten or demean anyone via social media or online forums could also land in hot water.

"Bullying, on the other hand, involves acts of aggression intended to single out certain individuals from their teammates or co-workers, or to exclude them from a military element, unit, or other Department of Defense organization," Work wrote.

Bullying among service members and families has made headlines in recent years. Take the case of Army 1st Sgt. Katrina Moerk, who had a target on her back after she confronted fellow soldiers in the comments section of satire video about "barracks rats." In the end, she earned an Army Commendation Medal for calling out their unprofessionalism and standing up to the ensuing bullying. Nonetheless, she has remained a target of cyber-abuse.

The bullying has also extended to military wives, who've been mocked for their appearance or weight. Many of them are now fighting back.

A February report from the Government Accountability Office found that all five military services have different ways of tracking hazing, from the Army policy of tracking only the cases taken on by their Criminal Investigation Command to the Coast Guard and Air Force’s "ad hoc" system of compiling the data only when asked for it.

Their recommendations included better training and more consistent tracking throughout the services, as well as robust oversight from DoD to make sure those things are carried out.

The Navy submitted their first tracking report in June, which included one instance of bullying out of 15 reports of hazing – under the old definition – during this fiscal year.

In that case, from February 2016, an E-3 assigned to the attack submarine Chicago accused an E-5 of verbally and physically abusing him by using derogatory terms, questioning his qualifications, spraying him with water, punching him and putting him a choke hold.

Punishments vary for both hazing and bullying, but according to Navy data, most are handled at non-judicial punishment and include losses of rank and fines. For cases that include physical assault, the consequences can go to court-martial and beyond.

The hazing toll

The Navy has wrapped hazing and bullying into its two most recent behavioral training programs, with Bystander Intervention to the Fleet training in 2015, followed by Chart the Course in 2016.

Both have sought to educate sailors on how to identify damaging decision-making – whether it’s drug and alcohol use, sexual harassment and assault, or hazing and bullying – and how to seek help for themselves, offer guidance to their peers or report disturbing behavior when they see it. The fleet is due to have completed Chart the Course -- a series of six short films dealing with sexual harassment, binge drinking, hazing and other topics – by the end of this year, Burkhardt said.

Still, the reports from the last year – since Navy Times requested records -- show plenty of nasty and offensive behavior, many that seem closer to sexual harassment.

In June 2015, for example, a male E-6 walked up to a female E-3 who was lying by a pool and untied her bikini top. He received a reduction in rank to E-5, restriction, extra duty and docked pay.

In September, an E-5 reported some sailors had repeatedly drawn a penis on his forehead while he was asleep in his rack. The third time, he said, it took four days to scrub off.

Reports are down for the second year in a row, after two years on the rise. Officials have said that more reports is a sign of comfort with reporting, while a drop could indicate fewer incidents.

The service saw a rise in reports over its first two years of tracking — 12 and 14 percent, respectively — followed by a 45 percent drop-off in fiscal year 2015.

"We believe that sailors are taking the issues seriously, they’re feeling comfortable coming forward and reporting," Burkhardt said. "And I think that our training has always helped them understand what behaviors would constitute hazing, and what sailors should do to take action."

Her office fields two or three dozen hazing reports a year, and until this year, gave them that label regardless of the perpetrator's rank or the victim's "new guy" status.

Since Navy Times last requested data in May 2015, there have been 33 new cases of hazing or bullying, 15 of which have been substantiated while five are still pending.

Year over year, the Navy saw a 45 percent drop in cases in fiscal year 2015, followed this year by about an 8 percent drop to date.

Leadership sees that as an indication that hazing training is working and sailors have a better handle on the line between activities with a "proper military purpose" and those that are just abusive.

But, Burkhardt said, "When I look at overall reports, if I have one, that’s one too many."

The Navy’s ability to track hazing is only as good as its ability to convince sailors to report what has historically been accepted or ignored.

To get a better handle on its prevalence, Burkhardt said, the Navy will be taking data from the same survey DoD uses to estimate actual instances of sexual assault, for example, versus reports.

"In the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey in 2016, there will be a question relative to hazing and bullying and the service member’s perceptions, if they’ve experienced or seen that behavior taking place," she said.

The Navy also asks for hazing information in command climate surveys, she added, but doesn’t yet make an estimate of how many sailors are being hazed. The goal, eventually, is to be able to calculate a prevalence rate from that information.

"Let me just applaud the military for starting to look at hazing for trying to create ways to report it," Lipkins said, adding that many colleges, for example, don't give choices for reporting or allow anonymous reports.

But, she added, tracking and training are not enough -- and according to her research, systematic training can be ineffective.

"When they just simply repeat things and drum it into people, they become numb and they don’t listen and they don’t take it in at all," she said.

The key, she said, is to first identify and even weed out people inclined to haze others by asking them about their past experiences in group settings, like the notorious hazing breeding ground of high school sports.

"You basically learn how to haze in high school, put that in your backpack and take that to the military, college, workplace," she said.  "You need to assume that it’s there, that hazing is part of the culture. Families have been raised in this culture. Most of the people who are in the military now, even in leadership, have themselves been hazed or hazed others, or both."

The other piece, she said, is to lift up as examples leaders who counter and prevent hazing, so that a sailor never witnesses or experiences hazing and therefore doesn't pass it on as they advance.

"They have to actually recognize that some of the traditions, or most of the traditions, that are occurring are in fact hazing," she said. "And even though they are saying, 'It didn’t hurt me, or didn’t hurt anyone else,' the mere fact that it is acceptable is giving a wink or a nod to the abuse."