'A Hate Crime': Government Asks for 7 Years in Marine Hazing Case

Drill instructors present their new Marines with Eagle, Globe and Anchors during the emblem ceremony Sept. 7, 2013, at the Iwo Jima flag raising statue on Parris Island, S.C. (Photo by Lance Cpl. MaryAnn Hill)

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- After an emotional morning of testimony, a military jury is now determining a sentence for Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, a former Marine drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, who was found guilty Thursday of hazing and assaulting more than a dozen recruits, including three Muslim recruits he appeared to single out for special treatment.

Felix, who was convicted of three counts of maltreatment; eight counts of violation of a lawful general order; and individual counts of dereliction of duty, drunk and disorderly conduct, and false official statement, faces a maximum sentence of 21 years, 9 months in confinement, military judge Lt. Col. Michael Libretto said Friday.

A prosecuting attorney, Col. Jeffrey Groharing, said the government wants a seven-year sentence, accompanied by demotion to private and dishonorable discharge, to send an unmistakable message about the gravity of Felix's conduct.

He described Felix's treatment of recruit Ameer Bourmeche, now a lance corporal, who was forced to conduct physical "incentive training" in the shower and then ordered into an industrial dryer.

Felix was convicted of turning on the dryer with Bourmeche inside, and stopping it at intervals to demand if he was still a Muslim.

Bourmeche testified Friday in sentencing that he has struggled with anxiety and lost motivation as accounts of what Felix did to him have been made public. He said he suffers from frequent nightmares.

"In some dreams, I see Gunnery Sgt. Felix killing my family," he said.

Groharing said Felix's treatment of Bourmeche, a recruit not even in his own training platoon, was part of the most troubling element of the case: Felix's pattern of mistreating Muslim recruits.

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

He also cited statements by recruit Rekan Hawez and Ghazala Siddiqui, the mother of Raheel Siddiqui. Felix was convicted of mistreating both Muslim recruits. Siddiqui died in what was ruled a suicide on March 18, 2016, while at boot camp.

"Why did they treat [Siddiqui] like a terrorist?" Ghazala Siddiqui wrote in a submitted statement. "He was born here and raised here ... what did he do to deserve that?"

For the first time, Felix and his wife Jean took the stand to testify, separately, about the impact the investigation and the hazing case has had on their lives.

Felix, a 34-year-old air traffic controller by trade who has spent 15 years in the Marine Corps, struggled to control his emotions as he described his hardscrabble upbringing in rural Arizona, where he and his six siblings often went to bed hungry.

"Gentlemen, you have to forgive me," he said, his slow Southwest twang shaky with feeling. "I've been a Marine a long time. Getting this emotional ain't normal for me."

Felix talked about his deep love and care for his wife and four daughters and his decade-long dream of being a drill instructor at Parris Island.

When he was "sat down," as a result of the hazing investigation, he said he had been forced to check into a unit for months with nothing for him to do. The conviction, he added, has taken away clearances and all of the military achievements for which he has worked.

"I'm a shattered man as I stand before you," he said. "The girls in my life are the only thing that are keeping the pieces together."

Jean Felix, who wept openly during the sentencing statements, called her husband a devoted father who had married her within months of meeting her and gave back to his community as a soccer coach and through the veterans' fly-fishing program Operation Healing Waters.

"If he doesn't come home, the effects will be enormous, not only emotionally, for his children, but financially," she said. "We depend on him."

Felix never acknowledged or admitted that he had committed any of the abusive acts on his charge sheet. He expressed remorse to just one person: his wife.

"Thank you for standing by me and being as wonderful as you are," he said, turning to face her in the courtroom. "I can never repay the disappointment I feel you have in me."

An attorney for Felix, Capt. John Heron, called for a much more lenient sentence than that suggested by the government: no more than 30 days' confinement and demotion.

"I fought for Gunnery Sgt. Felix. I believed in him," Heron said. "And as I stand here, I feel that I failed him in some way."

Felix, who was denied re-enlistment and has been kept on active duty since his scheduled end of active service date in June for the trial, is not a menace to society and does not require long-term confinement, Heron said. He also noted Felix, whose drinking appeared to play a role in some of the hazing events, gave up alcohol two years ago to improve his life.

"His life is in your hands," Heron told the jury.

A sentence was expected to be handed down Friday.

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