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Witnesses: Drill instructor called recruit a terrorist

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — Most of the 19 platoon-mates of Marine recruit Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor who testified here Monday said their former senior drill instructor called the Muslim recruit a “terrorist.”

“In my perspective, he treated recruit Siddiqui different than others because of his religion,” testified Lance Cpl. Brandon Lowe, who was part of Platoon 3042, K Company, 3rd Battalion, with Siddiqui.

Lowe recalled a time when the platoon was gathered around the drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, and Felix asked if anyone knows what a “bazaar” is. Siddiqui raised his hand.

“‘Of course you do, you g------ terrorist,’” Lowe quoted Felix as saying.

The former recruits were describing their first week of boot-camp training at Parris Island in South Carolina, during which at least two recruits were directed to briefly choke one another as punishment for smiling or laughing while in formation. The court-martial trial of Felix is in its second week.

“I was trying to make the senior drill instructor happy,” said Lance Cpl. Mason Blankenship, explaining why he had choked one of his fellow recruits.

Several witnesses testified that Felix had grabbed another recruit by the throat and slammed his head against the wall of the shower room as punishment for a perceived infraction. And he knocked another to the ground by kicking the footlocker the recruit was holding.

Felix’s court martial here is the first public prosecution by the Marines involving the case of Siddiqui, who was 20 and less than two weeks into boot camp in March 2016 when he fell to his death from his barracks following a reported altercation with Felix.

Prosecutors say Felix targeted and mistreated three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui. The charges against Felix include three counts of cruelty and maltreatment, eight counts of failing to obey orders, making false official statements, drunk and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded not guilty.

The witnesses said Felix referred to Siddiqui, a Muslim, as a “terrorist” in front of the platoon on at least one occasion, though some of the witnesses thought Felix was joking.

“It was just a sense of humor,” Lance Cpl. Sian Lawson testified.

Another recruit said he’d heard Felix call Siddiqui a terrorist “upwards of 10 times,” saying he thought it was meant to be “derogatory.”

Bryce Herman, another former recruit, testified that Felix said Siddiqui “smelled like a terrorist.”

“I believe he was very serious, sir,” Herman told the prosecutor. “Straight face.”

Lance Cpl. Demetrius Carter and other recruits said Felix seemed wary of “spies” from other platoons and directed them to keep the windows closed or blinds drawn.

“He said Marines are like hot dogs. Everyone loves them, but no one wants to know how they’re made,” Carter said.

After Siddiqui died, Carter said, Felix told the platoon there would likely be an investigation and “that he’d been watching our backs, and we should do the same for him.”

Many witnesses testified that Felix told the platoon that “what happens in the squad bay stays in the squad bay.”

“He said there was going to be an investigation, and other people didn’t need to know what was going on in the platoon,” Lance Cpl. Shane McDevitt said on the witness stand. “I took it to mean, shut up.”

Felix’s attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel “Clay” Bridges, stressed that Felix never asked members of the platoon to lie or not to talk to Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators.

Under questioning by Bridges, several platoon members admitted their memories were “hazy” since 18 months have passed since the start of boot camp.

Bridges also pointed out that Felix spent one-on-one time with Siddiqui almost daily to help him and that Siddiqui was disciplined for infractions just like other recruits were disciplined.

Felix is being judged by an eight-person jury made up of half military officers and half enlisted service members, who are expected to hear from as many as 76 witnesses.

Judge Lt. Col. Michael Libretto has limited discussion of Siddiqui’s death at trial to the obstruction of justice charge, and to explain why Siddiqui himself won’t take the stand to testify.

Felix’s court-martial follows a series of Marine Corps investigations a year ago that uncovered systemic hazing and abuse of recruits within the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island training depot in South Carolina.

A probe into Siddiqui’s death found that on the day he died — March 18, 2016 — Siddiqui had complained of being ill with a sore throat and requested to go to the medical center.

Staff Sgt. Joshua McEldoon, then a drill-instructor-in-training, said he saw another drill instructor yelling at Siddiqui before breakfast that morning. Siddiqui, who made no sound, held up a handwritten note and clutched his throat.

McEldoon said he took the note and gave it to another drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Christopher Minie.

After breakfast, Felix was trying to get Siddiqui to respond to him, or “sound off.”

“Nothing was coming from recruit Siddiqui,” McEldoon said.

No one had notified Felix of Siddiqui’s earlier complaint, nor did Felix see the note, McEldoon tesfified.

Felix disciplined Siddiqui by forcing him to run sprints across the barracks squad bay until he fell or collapsed to the floor, clutching his throat, witnesses said.

Witnesses testified that Felix shouted at Siddiqui to get up and then shook him. Some said he also tried a “sternum rub” in an effort to rouse him. When Siddiqui didn’t respond, Felix struck Siddiqui in the face.

In court, Lawson demonstrated the force of the slap by clapping his hands.

“It was pretty loud,” said Lawson, who was pretending to sweep up nearby. “Then (Siddiqui) just got up and ran outside, sir.”

This was not part of Monday’s testimony, but Siddiqui ran out a door leading to a stairwell and went over the railing, according to the Marines’ prior investigation.

His foot caught the railing, and he seemed to trip or tumble over, falling more than 38 feet to the concrete below — his chest striking a steel handrail. He was pronounced dead several hours later.

The Marines categorized the death as a suicide. Siddiqui’s family has disputed the ruling, saying their son was targeted, abused and discriminated against due to his Islamic faith.

Under questioning, McEldoon testified that — among the medical emergencies he’d witnessed — he had never seen a recruit who appeared unable to speak, but he had seen recruits “fake fatigue” to get out of training.

Capt. Richard W. Korges, an attorney for Felix, asked about the medical training in drill instructor school.

McEldoon agreed that, when a recruit passes out, drill instructors should try shouting, shaking and trying to elicit a pain response, such as a sternum rub.

A prosecutor, Lt. Col. John P. Norman, asked if drill instructors are ever trained to slap recruits in the face.

“No,” McEldoon replied.