DI Who Hazed Muslim Recruits Gets 10 Years, Dishonorable Discharge

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix exits a military courthouse at Camp Lejeune, N.C., after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for hazing Muslim recruits. (Photo by Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)
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Updated at 3:35 p.m. Eastern

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- A former Marine Corps drill instructor convicted this week of hazing and assaulting recruits at Parris Island and singling out Muslim recruits for harassment will serve 10 years, a military jury decided Friday.

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix was also sentenced to a dishonorable discharge and reduction in rank to private in the hearing. The sentence is even more severe than the seven years prosecutors recommended in sentencing arguments. The maximum sentence he could have received is 21 years, 9 months.

Felix was convicted of three counts of maltreatment and eight more of failure to obey a lawful general order in the hazing case. He was also convicted of individual counts of false official statement, drunk and disorderly conduct, and dereliction of duty. He was acquitted of one count of violation of a general order and another of obstruction of justice.

While a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, Felix ordered one Muslim recruit into an industrial dryer and turned it on, slapped and berated another, and forced a group of recruits to drink chocolate milk until they vomited, the court found.

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Dozens of witnesses, mostly former recruits and drill instructors, testified during Felix's 10-day trial. Recruits testified that he choked, punched and slapped recruits who failed to perform to his standards and, on several occasions, made recruits choke each other.

Some testified to his apparent habit of targeting weaker recruits for punishment and harassment.

The case has received national attention because it came in the wake of the death of 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American Muslim recruit who jumped to his death from the third floor of a squad bay on March 16, 2016. Siddiqui's death was ruled a suicide by a South Carolina medical examiner, but his family disputes that claim.

A 2016 investigation found Felix had forced Siddiqui to perform physical "incentive training" when he claimed he could not sound off because of a sore throat that had him coughing blood. When Siddiqui collapsed during the training, Felix slapped him, the investigation found. Siddiqui would get up and run, vaulting over a railing and to his death.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Siddiqui's home state of Michigan, released a lengthy statement Friday honoring the fallen recruit.

"What happened to Raheel Siddiqui at Parris Island was a dereliction of duty and a tragedy," she said. "... Instead, Raheel and other recruits were targeted, degraded and mistreated by the individual charged. As the prosecution stated in closing arguments, Sergeant Felix 'wasn't making Marines, he was breaking Marines.' "

Dingell said she would continue to pursue justice in Siddiqui's case, working with the Marine Corps and the fallen recruit's family.

"Additionally, evidence presented at the trial reaffirms that the finding of suicide should be revisited," she said. "I will continue to work with all involved to have the initial findings revisited with additional facts that have become available so we can bring some measure of peace to the Siddiqui family."

Felix and his wife Jean gave emotional testimony Friday, speaking of Felix's love for the Marine Corps and his family and his longtime dream of becoming a drill instructor. Jean Felix sobbed as the sentence was read.

The lead attorney for the defense, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, declined through a public affairs officer to comment on the sentence Friday.

An attorney for the prosecution asked the jury instead to think of the torment recruits endured under Felix, including Ameer Bourmeche, who testified that he has nightmares in the wake of being tumbled in a dryer.

"Think of what that recruit went through at the hands of the accused for no reason other than he was a Muslim," said Col. Jeffrey Groharing, the attorney. "There's no training value in that -- that's a hate crime."

Felix's sentence may be among the most severe ever handed down in a Marine Corps hazing case.

In 2011, multiple Marines were prosecuted following the suicide of 21-year-old Cpl. Harry Lew, who was allegedly hazed and abused in Afghanistan for falling asleep on watch. Ultimately, two of the Marines were acquitted, and one took a plea deal and received 30 days' confinement and demotion.

In perhaps the most famous Marine Corps hazing case, a drill instructor who had been drinking marched recruits into Parris Island's swampy Ribbon Creek in 1956. Six of the recruits drowned. That drill instructor was convicted of negligent homicide and drinking on duty and served three months in the brig. He remained in the service.

The dishonorable discharge, the most severe form of punitive discharge from the military, is equivalent to a felony conviction. It entails the loss of all veterans' benefits and precludes the discharged individual from owning firearms.

Felix will be transported to the brig at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Friday, said Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for Marine Corps Training and Education Command.

Officials at Marine Corps Headquarters will determine where he serves out his full sentence.

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