Marine: Drill instructor targeted ‘weaker’ recruits

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — A Marine who attended boot camp with recruit Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor testified Tuesday that their former drill instructor said Muslims “don’t belong in the Marine Corps,” and that he targeted “weaker” recruits.

Lance Cpl. Austin Trausi testified that Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix – who is accused of mistreating three Muslim recruits including Siddiqui – questioned why the Marines admitted Muslims.

“He would say, ‘Why do we let Muslim terrorists join the Marine Corps?’” Trausi said on the stand.

Trausi also said that Felix targeted the weaker recruits, which he said included Siddiqui, “to weed them out or to turn people against them.”

“Do you think he was trying to make them stronger, or to break them so they wouldn’t become Marines?” asked Col. Jeffrey D. Groharing, a prosecutor.

“Break them,” Trausi replied.

Other recruits from Platoon 3042, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, testified Monday that Felix had singled out Siddiqui and called him a “terrorist” during their first couple weeks of training at Parris Island in South Carolina.

But two drill instructors told the court Tuesday the training team was actually going easy on Siddiqui.

Christopher Minie, a former drill instructor with the platoon, testified that he sometimes imposed tough, punitive exercises on recruits, but Felix was neither there, nor did he order it.

Felix’s court-martial is in its second week here. The charges against him include three counts of cruelty and maltreatment, eight counts of failing to obey orders, and one count each of making false official statements, drunken and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice. Felix has pleaded not guilty.

The government rested its case Tuesday, and the defense called its first witness – an expert who testified about an incident with another platoon in which a Muslim was forced into a clothes dryer and it was turned on.

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

Felix is not charged in the death of Siddiqui, and the judge previously ruled to exclude any discussion at trial of how Siddiqui died at Parris Island on March 18, 2016.

On that day, Siddiqui sounded “hoarse” when the recruits counted off before breakfast, according to Staff Sgt. Shawn McGee, one of his drill instructors.

Siddiqui gestured that he had a sore throat, and McGee moved on down the line.

Siddiqui had returned earlier in the week from the sick bay, and “something was off,” so Felix had told his DIs not to go “full force” on him, McGee explained.

The platoon was cleaning up after breakfast when Siddiqui was called out by Felix, who demanded that he sound off. When he didn’t, Felix ordered Siddiqui to run several sprints up and down the squad bay.

Siddiqui held his hands on his neck as he ran and collapsed on his third trip up and back, seemingly unresponsive, said a recruit who witnessed the episode.

“I recall looking and seeing his eyes roll back in his head,” Lance Cpl. Aaron McCarthney testified. “I could see the whites of his eyes.”

Felix stood over Siddiqui and slapped him in the face. Various witnesses have said Felix also shouted and shook Siddiqui or rubbed his knuckles against Siddiqui’s sternum to rouse him.

Siddiqui then stood and ran out a door leading to a stairwell and went over the railing, according to a report by Marine investigators.

His foot caught the railing, and he seemed tumbled over, falling more than 38 feet to the concrete below. He was later pronounced dead.

Marine officials categorized the death as a suicide, though Siddiqui’s family has disputed the ruling, saying their son was abused and targeted because of his Islamic faith.

McGee testified that drill instructors are not trained to slap recruits to revive them, but to take their pulse and initiate CPR if needed.

Christopher Minie, a former drill instructor for Siddiqui’s platoon, testified that an instructor at DI school suggested slapping recruits to revive them. CPR could break ribs, Minie noted.

A prosecutor handed Minie a portion of a DI manual and asked where it authorized a slap in the face or a sternum rub for reviving recruits.

After studying the language, he said, “It doesn’t, sir.”

Prosecutors entered into evidence a handwritten note that Siddiqui had given to a drill instructor earlier that day, saying he had coughed up blood, couldn’t make any sound, and wanted to go to the medical center.

Minie thinks he gave the note to Felix, but didn’t have a specific memory of handing it to him, he said.

“I don’t know if he read it,” Minie said of Felix. “I believe I gave it to him, sir.”

Prosecutor Lt. Col. John P. Norman told the court that Minie had been charged in the series of recruit-hazing cases that came to light in the wake of Siddiqui’s death last year.

Minie acknowledged that he had pleaded guilty in an administrative proceeding to choking a recruit with a flashlight. He is no longer in the Marine Corps.

Norman said Minie told a member of the prosecution team not to put him in a hotel near any of the former recruits in town to testify because he blamed them for ruining his career and would “choke them.”

“I probably said something along those lines. Yes sir,” Minie replied.

Minie went to drill instructor school with Felix and told the prosecution team he wanted to to help the defense.

Both Minie and McGee testified that they never saw Felix kick or choke a recruit, direct a recruit to choke another, and never heard Felix call a recruit a “terrorist.”

Minie said the concept of “hating recruits” was discussed among drill instructors, but he never had that discussion with Felix.

(202) 662-8736