Army Recruits Abused in Training
June 28, 2005
FORT KNOX, Ky. - The recruits of Echo Company stumbled off the bus for basic training at Fort Knox to the screams of red-faced drill instructors. That much was expected. But it got worse from there.
Echo Company's top drill instructor seized a recruit by the back of the neck and threw him to the ground. Other soldiers were poked, grabbed or cursed.
Once inside the barracks, Pvt. Jason Steenberger says, he was struck in the chest by the top D.I. and kicked "like a football." Andrew Soper, who has since left the Army, says he was slapped and punched in the chest by another drill instructor. Pvt. Adam Roster says he was hit in the back and slammed into a wall locker.
Eventually, four Army drill instructors and the company commander would be brought up on charges. Four have been convicted so far.
The tough-as-nails D.I. who berates and intimidates recruits with remarkably creative profanity is a familiar figure to generations of men who went through the Army or the Marines, and a stock character in the movies - "Full Metal Jacket" and "An Officer and a Gentleman," among them. The idea is to break the recruit down, instill discipline and make him a well-trained part of a cohesive fighting unit.
But Army regulations in effect since 1985 say superiors cannot lay a hand on their recruits to discipline them. The Army's Training and Doctrine Command regulations also disallow any physical or verbal hazing, which includes "cruel or abusive tricks." Vulgar or sexually explicit language is also prohibited.
The guidelines reflect some of the lessons of the Vietnam era and the changing culture of the Army, which became an all-volunteer force with the end of the draft and began accepting women.
The Army gets complaints of abuse by drill sergeants "all the time, but we often find that they are not founded," said Connie Shaffery, a Fort Knox apokeswoman.
The Fort Knox case, involving a unit of the 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, was unusual, too, in that a company commander was convicted.
The abuse took place in early February. An Army investigation began the next week, as the company's leaders were removed and the 25 recruits were sent to another command. Six of the trainees have since left the Army, including two who went AWOL.
"It was just chaos - constant commotion, constant yelling," Sgt. 1st Class Paul Holley said. Holley said he had come over from another company that day to help out, but was quickly turned off by what he perceived to be abuse, and left.
"In my eyes, it wasn't the way I would conduct an initial pickup," he said.
Staff Sgt. Jason J. Harris, a drill instructor who has not been charged in the scandal, testified at one court-martial that it was the worst treatment of recruits he had ever seen.
Staff Sgt. David H. Price, Echo Company's head drill sergeant, said on the witness stand at his own court martial in April that he was "burned out" from being a D.I. for too long. He also said that he felt that the guidelines on abuse limited his ability to turn recruits into tough soldiers.
The evidence in the scandal included a 25-minute video - taken by a sergeant as the recruits stepped off the bus - that showed the recruits being poked, grabbed and berated. Recruits are often videotaped on arrival, and the footage is shown during their training graduation or at family days to show how far they have come.
Capt. William C. Fulton, 35, the company's commander, was convicted last week of false swearing and dereliction of duty for not halting the abuse. He was sentenced to six months' confinement.
Earlier this year, Price was convicted of maltreatment and demoted, as was Staff Sgt. Ricky L. Stauffer. Staff Sgt. Michael G. Rhoades was found guilty of maltreatment and impeding an investigation, and received a bad-conduct discharge. Staff Sgt. Bryan G. Duncan is awaiting a court-martial.
Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for the Army Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Monroe, Va., said there 120 allegations of abuse against Army drill sergeants in fiscal year 2004, and as a result 16 drill sergeants were relieved of duty.
So far in fiscal year 2005, there have been 42 complaints of abuse, and six sergeants have been relieved of duty, Perritt said.
Shaffery, the Fort Knox spokesman, said reforms put in place before the incident helped reveal the abuse. "We are holding to the policies and systems we have in place now, which discovered this situation within six days," she said.
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