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'Drunk On Power': Did Marine Drill Instructor Torment Muslim Recruits?

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix enters a military courthouse Nov. 8, 2017, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix enters a military courthouse Nov. 8, 2017, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix was drunk on power all the time -- and on his trademark Fireball Whisky sometimes as well, a military prosecutor argued on Wednesday.

After eight days of trial and testimony from dozens of witnesses, the defense and prosecution made closing arguments in the high-profile case of Felix, a former drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, who is accused of harassing and assaulting many recruits but saving his worst and most creative torments for a few who identified as Muslim.

Beginning Thursday morning, an eight-member military jury will deliberate over whether, among other charges, Felix forced recruits to choke each other, ordered them to drink chocolate milk until they vomited, and, on two occasions, loaded Muslim recruits in an industrial dryer in interrogation-style hazing rituals.

The allegations that have drawn the most attention, however, surround the March 2016 suicide death of recruit Raheel Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American from Michigan who leapt to his death from the third floor of a Parris Island squad bay, according to military investigators.

Felix, who at the time was already under investigation for the alleged dryer incident, is accused of calling Siddiqui a terrorist, slapping him and forcing him to run back and forth in the squad bay minutes before his death.

Felix is accused of routinely calling Muslim recruits "terrorist," referring to a Kurdish recruit, Rekan Hawez, as "ISIS," and forcing another Muslim recruit to conduct a mock beheading of a platoon mate while shouting, "Allahu Akbar."

The Marine's military defense attorneys, however, contend these accounts are overblown, contradictory and unbelievable.

In addition, they allege a key government witness, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, is actually responsible for some of the malfeasance of which Felix is accused. Eldridge, a former drill instructor, testified as part of a plea deal that will result in a lower-level administrative proceeding for him, with a limited maximum sentence.

A decorated Marine who enlisted in 2002, Felix faces three charges of maltreatment, one charge each of drunk and disorderly conduct and dereliction of duty, and eight counts of violation of a general order in connection with hazing accusations.

His charge sheet lists instances of physical assault or abuse of 14 different recruits from three platoons within the space of a year.

He is also accused of obstruction of justice and false official statement over allegations he lied to a military investigator and encouraged recruits not to discuss the investigation into Siddiqui's death.

If convicted on the graver charges, Felix could face years of confinement and a punitive discharge from the military.

Over the course of the trial, the prosecution called nearly 70 witnesses, including former Marine recruits and drill instructors who gave eyewitness accounts of Felix's alleged hazing activities. They also called an industrial dryer expert, who testified that Parris Island's "Speed Queen" dryer model could carry and tumble a 168-pound Marine recruit.

Some seven of the government's witnesses were also called to testify by the defense, a source said. In addition, the defense called just one expert witness Wednesday: Dr. Karen Kelly, a burn pathologist from East Carolina University.

Kelly was asked to address the claims of Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche, a former recruit who alleged Felix, after drinking Fireball with fellow drill instructors forced him to conduct physical "incentive training" in the shower.

Then, Bourmeche claimed, Felix ordered him soaking wet into the dryer. Felix allegedly turned the dryer on three times, stopping to ask Bourmeche at intervals whether he was still Muslim.

Kelly cast doubt on one account from Bourmeche that alleged he was tumbled in the dryer for 30 seconds at one point. In 30 seconds, she said, the dryer would rise to temperatures over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to deliver third- or fourth-degree burns in less than a second.

Bourmeche emerged without physical evidence of burns.

However, she acknowledged, shorter durations in the dryer would result in lower temperatures and likely less physical damage.

"If I were in a dryer, three seconds would seem like an eternity," she said.

Lt. Col. John Norman, who delivered the closing argument for the government, painted Felix as a serial bully who abused his authority to make life hell for those under his leadership.

"He punched them, he walked on them, he choked them, he kicked them. He degraded their religion and he put them in industrial appliances," Norman said. "He targeted the Muslims and he singled them out for maltreatment."

Norman said the former recruits who testified corroborated each other's accounts, including multiple occasions in which Felix choked recruits or forced a recruit to choke a platoon-mate in punishment for failure to perform.

In one instance, he said, Felix ordered some 30 to 40 recruits into the squad bay's tiny laundry room and then walked on their bodies.

Particularly troubling, Norman said, was an account in which Felix allegedly made one recruit choke another. A third recruit, standing by, allegedly moved in to take over the choking because he perceived the other recruit wasn't following the drill instructor's order forcefully enough.

"The culture has been created in this platoon so that, unordered, [another recruit] steps in to choke one of his platoon mates," Norman said.

In the case of Siddiqui, the trial skirted around the recruit's death. Siddiqui's parents, who maintain Siddiqui did not kill himself recently filed a $100 million wrongful death against the Marine Corps.

But Norman said Felix's actions on the day of Siddiqui's death -- when the recruit woke up complaining of a sore throat and saying he had been coughing up blood -- showed a lack of care for the recruit.

Felix allegedly forced Siddiqui to run "get-backs" in the squad bay when he could not sound off. When Siddiqui collapsed on the floor, clutching his throat, Felix is accused of slapping him on the face, hard enough that the sound echoed in the squad bay.

"Siddiqui reacts to turn away from it and immediately brings his hand up. Siddiqui's crying," Norman said. "Why would you slap a conscious person? Felix must have been really mad. Siddiqui gets up and he runs away."

According to a command investigation, he would not stop running until he had leaped off the building.

The attorney who gave the closing arguments for the defense, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, said the allegations against Felix were frequently contradictory and often rose to the point of absurdity.

How, he said, was the jury supposed to believe that Felix had forced recruits to pound chocolate milk and then exercise until they vomited in the middle of a crowded chow hall with officers standing around?

Some alleged assaults can be explained as reasonable corrections, including two instances in which Felix is accused of slamming a recruit's rifle against his face, drawing blood.

"If unexpected bodily harm occurs, the accused is not criminally liable," he said.

Bridges said he didn't buy the narrative that Felix targeted Muslims. Hawez, the Kurdish recruit, was selected for squad leader after Felix found out he was a Muslim, he said. And Bourmeche, he said, was only expressing curiosity about the faith.

Both the government and the defense agree Felix inappropriately drank Fireball Whisky with other drill instructors. But Bridges said the act only represented bad judgment, not dereliction, and added that there was no evidence Felix was drunk except for the smell of the cinnamon-flavored liquor on his breath.

The evidence, Bridges said, pointed to Eldridge as the instigator in the alleged dryer incident with Bourmeche, though Eldridge testified with protection in the case.

"Sgt. Eldridge took the government for a ride," he said.

The jury is expected to hand down a verdict tomorrow in the Felix case.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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