Recruit Abuse: A Culture of Competing Values




Tom Creely



At the Parris Island Training Pool in the spring of 2004, I stood by the poolside waiting to get in my hour swim.  As a retired Navy Chaplain, I kept my usual training discipline.  As I waited, I watched a group of Marines in Instructor Water Survival Training.  There were eight to ten swimmers in the water, and about as many instructors.  Whistles were blowing.  An electronic horn was blaring.  Instructors were yelling at the young Marines who were trying to qualify for instructor duty.  The training followed standard operating procedures of the swimmer in battle dress uniform going through a series of exercises with loud and confusing distractions occurring in the process.  The objective for the swimmer was to keenly focus on completing the process.  One Marine on the other side of the pool instantly drew my attention.  He was receiving excessive attention from two swim instructors.  The instructors were down on their knees at poolside screaming at the young swimmer.  He struggled to stay afloat in his cammies, helmet, and flak vest.  Exhausted, he made his way to the side of the pool where he slowly climbed onto the deck.  While the Marine sat, the instructors screamed at each side of his head telling him to get back in the water.  It appeared intentional and a noticeable deviation from the others in training.   After a couple of minutes they pushed the browbeaten and still exhausted Marine back into the water.  He struggled to stay afloat.  Then with considerable effort he swam to the side of the pool.  Slowly, he climbed out the pool and fell on to the deck.  Again, the two swim instructors screamed for him to get in the water.  At the same time, they were pulling the shoulders of his flak vest up to keep him sitting.  The Marine swimmer was listless.  After getting little response, the instructors dragged him along the side of the pool, around the corner, and in front of the concrete bleachers.  As one instructor supported the by-now non-responsive Marine, the other straddled him and repeatedly slapped his face.  It appeared the Marine was in physical distress.  Hitting him didn’t appear to be the right thing to do.  They seemed to be oblivious to his condition.

At this point, I rushed to the end of the pool.   “Stop hitting this Marine!  If you hit him one more time, you are going on report.”  The senior instructor jumped into my face and yelled, “It is none of your business. Stay out of it.  You don’t know what you are seeing or what is going on.”  I responded, “You call me ‘Sir’.”  Immediately, the Officer in Charge of the pool jumped up to address me.  He explained, “The Marine was unconscious. We were trying to take care of him. Sir, I am in charge and I will take care of the problem.”

  Unimpressed, I responded: “I was Regimental Chaplain and Support Battalion Chaplain.  I swam with the instructors and have observed swim training for five years.    I am familiar with standard operating procedure.  What I witnessed does not comply.”  

By that time, the swimmer was once again responding.  He told me, “Sir, its okay, I’m alright.”  The Officer in Charge said, “I’ll take care of him.”  I went on about my hour swim.

After finishing my swim, I went to the Battalion Commander’s office to report the abuse.  Before I could speak, he blurted to, “Tom, you almost got one of my Marines drowned by interfering with the training.  My pool staff had to save his life.”  Obviously the Officer in Charge had already reached the Battalion Commander.  In an attempted cover-up, he had falsified the details.

I was indignant and proceeded to tell him what I had seen and heard.  I asked, “If the Marine was unconscious, isn’t it standard operating procedure to call 911?”  The Battalion Commander didn’t answer, but assured me he would deal with the problem.

The incident in the PI pool is memorable because of the risk it posed for the Marine, but also because of the questions it raises.  If the leadership would do this to a Marine, what would keep them from doing the same, or worse, to a vulnerable Recruit?  Further, what generates the culture in the Marine Corps that permits and then covers-up such abuse?

Today, the Marine Corps is reflecting on what went wrong for Recruit Jason Tharpe, who drowned in February of this year.  In a separate incident the day before his drowning, television station WIS of Columbia, SC video taped a Drill Instructor inappropriately admonishing the Recruit Tharpe.  Fundamentally, there was a moral breakdown among those charged with the responsibility of others under their command.

During my time as Regimental Chaplain from 1999 to 2001, there was systemic Drill Instructor abuse of Recruits in one battalion.  For example, after lunch Recruits were made to drink water until they vomited.  Then they were made to do pushups in their own vomit.  To take another example, after showering, Recruits were lined up penis to buttocks single file.  The Regimental Commander, Sergeant Major, and I worked with the Battalion Commander to eradicate the abuse.  The heart of the problem, we discovered, was blind loyalty of Drill Instructors to each other.  They stubbornly remained silent in the face of abuse.  However, the structure of Drill Instructor collective secrecy sets itself up for its own demise (Bok 1989).  After successfully penetrating the wall of silence, and assuring protection for victimized Recruits, we brought the rogue Drill Instructors to justice by way of the military court-marital system.  At the direction of the Regimental Commander, I developed a brief entitled “Drill Instructor Integrity Check.”  He and I addressed every Drill Instructor and Officer in the Regiment.  We stressed the integrity that each Marine leader is sworn to uphold.  We emphasized that leadership carries moral accountability, as well as professional consequences.

 As part of my Regimental Chaplain responsibilities, I introduced to the Drill Instructor School a basic ethics course that included a moral decision making model.  The model collected the facts, determined the values the event was to be measured by, making a moral values decision, and reviewing for it to be the right thing to do.  In the course, Drill Instructors would analyze the ethics of case studies taken from actual events at Parris Island with the four step process.  The taboo of Recruit abuse was reiterated throughout their training by the staff.  However, my last day as Regimental Chaplain involved a debate with the Director of the Drill Instructor School over the need for more ethics education and the role of the Chaplain in such training.  The Director decided that Drill Instructors needed only one hour of ethics education rather than two and that his staff should provide the instruction to the exclusion of chaplains.  The decision resulted in marginalizing Drill Instructors’ moral decision making skills.  The decision ignored an important principle: the greater the responsibility the greater the need for competent moral instruction. 

During my tenure at Parris Island, Chaplains and Drill Instructors taught 50 hours of values training to Recruits to reinforce “Honor, Courage, and Commitment.”  Chaplains delivered five lectures entitled “Ethics, Courage, Commitment, Personal Values, and Group Values.”  The reason for the emphasis on ethical training was the apparent lack of good character values on the part of many new Recruits.  But with so much instruction in values and ethical training, how is it that clearly defined ethical principles are still ignored or dismissed by some Drill Instructors and Officers?  I believe the answer is that competing values lie at the root of the problem.

  Core values classes were introduced to Recruit Training curricula in the mid-1990’s.  This occurred because of an apparent need to address the moral void created by the culture from which Recruits were coming.  Young Americans were coming into the Marine Corps with a lack of moral direction and with an inability to make solid moral decisions.

Structure and discipline form an integral role in reducing the new Recruit to a vulnerable state, and then rebuilding the person into a Marine capable of maintaining national security.  However, it is in this context that Drill Instructors must exhibit integrity and trust if they are to produce the desired outcome.  As Regimental Chaplain, I witnessed young men and women being transformed into persons with a sense of self-worth, dignity, and a vision for the future.  Many Recruits come to Parris Island in search of a future with opportunities; escape from a bad home environment; and to find a sense of belonging.   But instead of having their hopes fulfilled, some Recruits have met with unwarranted abuse and victimization at the hands of Drill Instructors who are egomaniacs.  This is the exception, not the rule.  But there should be no exceptions.

I asked a Drill Instructor, “Why is it that a few Drill Instructor’s abuse Recruits?”  He responded, “Sir, it is considered a right of passage to hit a Recruit or abuse a Recruit.  You are not considered a real DI unless you use some type of abusive means.  It’s a power trip.”  

There are four identifiable interlocking contributors to the corrosive and obstructive moral deficit I have been discussing.  Examining them will better explain the dynamics associated with defaulting on moral leadership.  It will also point to how the problem might be effectively addressed. 

The first is power.  From the Recruit’s standpoint, the Drill Instructor is ‘god’—all powerful, all knowing, upon whom the Recruit is dependent.  The DI creates an atmosphere of “panopticon.”  Panopticon is philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s principle of creating an environment in which, in order to control a person’s behavior, he or she is made to believe they are always being watched (Foucault 1980).  The Drill Instructor is there to control the Recruit’s every movement and action.

But to be effective in accomplishing the training objectives, such power must be balanced with trust.  In some indigenous cultures, there are individuals who seek to impose abusive power out of their own dysfunction or narcissistic motives.  When this is applied to the USMC, those who come from an abusive background now feel empowered to do the same to Recruits.   They lack the intrinsic values of self respect and dignity for their fellow human beings.  As a leader, it is important to be cognizant of behavior that demonstrates the propensity to go over the edge (Creely 2004). 

Secondly, many young people grow up without the ability to set boundaries.  Our American culture reflects an attitude in which boundaries are arbitrary.  If young people do not have the ability to set boundaries, there will be an injudicious use of power.  Boundaries enable a person to maintain control over their own actions with thought and reflection and control of self-serving desires.  A lack of boundaries between people leads to unhealthy relationships.  Once a Drill Instructor touches a Recruit inappropriately, he or she forfeits his or her legitimate power.  Boundaries are the early warning system not to go beyond defensible moral limits.

Not having emotional intelligence is the third reason for poor leadership skills that lead to abuse.  A crisis in leadership results when emotions control the Drill Instructor instead of the Drill Instructor controlling his or her emotions.  A leader’s consistently negative emotions permeate an organization.  “Low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety”(Goleman, Boyatizis, and McKee 2001).  Self-awareness and self-management skills are crucial for motivating Recruits to become part of a high performance team.  Strict Marine Corps discipline is not a substitute for emotional intelligence. One must first learn to lead oneself before attempting to lead others.   

Not having a framework for moral decision making is fourth.  Growing up and living in a society with conflicting values plays havoc with moral reasoning.  Peer pressure, group think, and personal agendas override the virtue of character if it is not reinforced.  Having a moral basis upon which to determine right and wrong behavior, and from which to question motives, provide for sound leadership.  Ethics are prescriptive to life events.  Drill Instructors who utilize a solid framework for making moral decisions will exhibit behavior that fortifies the Marine Corps values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.

  A Marine accepts an awesome responsibility to live up to the Drill Instructor’s Creed which is recited at Drill Instructor school graduation and the leadership introduction to every new platoon of Recruits.  The Drill Instructor’s Creed states,

These are my recruits.  I will train them to the best of my ability.  I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country.  I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.  (


     The job of training Recruits is hard and rewarding work for Drill Instructors and Officers.  In light of recent events, it should be clear that unrelenting efforts must be made to provide moral instruction that fosters professionalism in all aspects of Recruit Training.  We must be reminded that the seeds of failure can lie in the technique of training itself (Ellul 1964).  An unblinking vigilance must be maintained for ethical leadership.  I have listed four recommendations that will make for better Drill Instructors:


·        Better screening of Drill Instructor Candidates for personality and psychological traits.  Being proactive would eliminate those not suited for the job of Drill Instructor.

·        Well developed ethical leadership education for Drill Instructors and Officers that provides a moral framework.  Ethical training ought to be commensurate with the responsibility — increasingly complex ethical training along the career path.

·        Access to counseling without repercussions and personal development opportunities.  The fear and stigma of counseling inhibits Drill Instructors from appropriate help that enable them to do their job effectively.

·        A back to basics approach to being a Marine.  Adjusting the moral compass to true North sets the Marine Corps on a path that reinforces the Warrior Ethos  

Power is a valuable commodity.  Its judicious use provides for optimum outcomes for Recruits.  Power, correctly applied, brings out the best in men and women who serve us.  Above all, the principle of dignity must be applied in order to protect young men and women from harm (Ignatieff 2004).  In such a vast and complex regimen such as Recruit Training, it is not uncommon to loose sight of personhood and the dignity that ought to be afforded to our fellow man and woman.  Thousands pass through Parris Island every year, the training cycle repeats itself over and over, thus human awareness becomes desensitized.  The technological machine of Recruit Training requires self awareness.




After the pool incident, I hope the Battalion Commander took disciplinary action against the Officer in Charge and Senior Enlisted Marines.  I would hate to think that a lack of ethical leadership would have reinforced systemic abuse that could have led to a Recruit’s drowning a few months later.  Ethical leadership is the foundation of building a moral military force to encounter the immoral terrorists that proclaim self-righteous motives for their actions.    To properly fight the Global War on Terrorism, in which the rules are not always clearly defined, military leaders must reinforce and strengthen the morals and ideals of those trained as warriors to prevent their becoming like the terrorist they confront or leading to another Abu Ghraib situation (Yi 2004).  Ongoing character development is essential for a viable Warrior Ethos.  For nearly 229 years, the Marine Corps has valiantly defended our nation with sound moral values.  As a Navy Chaplain to Marines, I am proud to have served along their side.  With the recent events of abuse and the unnecessary death of Recruit Tharp, this is a time of soul searching for the Corps to raise the moral bar.


Copyrighted 2005.

This article is copyrighted and no part may be copied or used in any form without the expressed consent of the author. 


Tom Creely, a retired Navy Chaplain, is adjunct faculty at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and is a Ph.D. Candidate at Salve Regina University.





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