The Haze of War

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo: Harry Hamburg / AP)

At the tail end of last Friday's hearing into military suicides before the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee, Rep. Judy Chu finally got a chance to speak. Although not a member of the panel - she serves on the Education and Labor, Judiciary, and Small Business committees - chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said the California Democrat would be allowed to have her say "after all subcommittee have had an opportunity to ask questions."

Non-committee members often want a chance to ask policy-makers about something affecting their districts. But Rep. Chu had something different on her mind. It went off like an IED amid the Pentagon's top health and personnel officials:

Rep. Judy Chu: I want to tell you about something that happened in April of this year. Lance Corporal Harry Lew was moved to a unit on his first tour of Afghanistan, and sent to Helmand Province. Eleven days after transfer, he was found asleep on watch. It had happened before in those 11 days, and his fellow Marines felt that he let them down and they let him know it.

At 11:30 p.m., the sergeant called for peers to collect peers.

At 12:01 a.m., Lance Corporal Lew was beaten, berated and forced to perform rigorous exercise. He was forced to do pushups and leg lifts wearing full body armor and sand was poured in his mouth. He was forced to dig a hole for hours. He was kicked, punched and stomped on, and it did not stop until 3:20 a.m.

At 3:43 a.m., Lance Corporal Lew climbed into the foxhole that he just dug and shot himself and committed suicide.

Lance Corporal Lew was my nephew.

He was 21 years old and he was looking forward to returning home after three months. He was a very popular and outgoing young man, known for joking and smiling and break dancing.

But he wasn't the only soldier that this happened to, and in fact, in June, Stars and Stripes shared the story of Army Specialist Brushaun Anderson, who was severely hazed and mistreated by his superior officers on a remote base in Iraq.

They said that he was dirty, that he performed poorly, and they made him wear a plastic trash bag and made him perform physical exercise in his body armor over and over again, and made him build a sandbag wall that served no military purpose.

In 2009, Army soldier Keiffer Wilhelm shot himself in a portable toilet after being accused of being overweight and forced to perform excessive physical exercise while his superiors showered him with verbal abuse.

Your data shows that 40 percent of the individuals who committed suicide last year were involved in a legal or disciplinary problem in the year before they died. I would like to know for each service is hazing expressly prohibited under your regulations? How are you actually preventing suicide from hazing? And in each of these cases superior officers were involved, what are you doing to actually enforce the regulations pertaining to hazing with superior officers?

Lieutenant General Robert Milstead Jr., Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs: Yes, ma'am. The - this is very unfortunate.

Hazing, as you, to use the term that you've used, is inconsistent with Marine Corps core values. It is expressly prohibited and by regulation, and when found it is investigated, and where substantiated, it will be dealt with appropriately. We don't condone hazing in the United States Marine Corp.

Chu: Dr. Woodson, what has actually been done - well, first of all I would like to know for each service whether you know hazing is expressly prohibited and what is actually being done about it?

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs: I can say, for the Army, hazing is specifically prohibited. It's written clearly in our regulations that it is prohibited, and if it occurs, then we take the appropriate actions, based on investigations that we hold commanders accountable for executing. But we expect soldiers to treat each other with dignity and respect and adhere to the Army values and that's the bottom line. And if they don't, then we will investigate and take appropriate actions.

Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta, Director of Navy Military Personnel: And Congresswoman, for the Navy, as with the other services, hazing is not consistent with our core values and is defiantly, expressly prohibited, and again, like the other services, when actions of hazing are, come to light, we take very strong and proactive action to bring all of those involved to justice.

Lieutenant General Darrell Jones, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower and Personnel: Congresswoman, first off, we're very sorry for your loss. And I promise you that, from the Air Force standpoint, that we do not condone hazing. We have regulations against it. Being a commander five different times, including command of the Air Force's Lackland Air Force Base, 37th Training Wing, where we do all basic training for the Air Force, we watch for things like that. Whenever we have someone who's in a subordinate position and, obviously, superiors like military training instructors, instructors of tech training, we watch for that very carefully. And when someone does get out of line, we take swift action. It's inconsistent with our core values, and we do not tolerate it.

Woodson: I too want to express great sorrow for your loss and state affirmatively that hazing is inconsistent with Department of Defense policy. It is also clear that the uniformed services - each of the services have the UCMJ responsibilities. And so that we want to assure that we enforce the policies of carrying out the appropriate investigations, but it's each of the services' responsibilities to conduct those investigations and apply UCMJ as appropriate.

The Marines are investigating three of their own in connection with Lew's death. This case could be the most thoroughly investigated military suicide ever, due to an interested aunt.

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