Boot camp commander pleads guilty after hazing scandal
Quantico, Virginia — A former battalion commander at the Parris Island boot camp has pleaded guilty to three charges including negligently returning a drill instructor to work who was under investigation for hazing a Muslim recruit.
A military jury sentenced that drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, to 10 years in prison last fall for abusing three Muslim recruits, including of 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, a different Muslim recruit who died at the boot camp in 2016.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, who pleaded guilty Monday as part of a plea agreement with military prosecutors, had been in charge of Siddiqui’s battalion — the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion — at the South Carolina training depot.
A military judge, Navy Capt. Charles Purnell, on Monday approved the plea deal, in which Kissoon pleaded guilty to two counts of dereliction of duty, one count of making false official statements, and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.
As part of the deal described in court, Kissoon is voluntarily retiring from the Marine Corps after 28 years and could leave the Marines at the lower rank of major, pending a decision by the Secretary of the Navy. A rank reduction to major could cost Kissoon up to $10,000 in annual retirement pay for the rest of his life, lawyers said.
Purnell on Monday afternoon sentenced Kissoon to a forfeiture of $1,000 a month for five months and a letter of reprimand.
Kissoon, who remains stationed at Parris Island, was facing forfeiture of up to two-thirds of his pay for 12 months, and two months’ worth of restriction on travel, potentially limiting trips away from home.
Purnell refused to enter into evidence exhibits offered by the prosecution that included a statement by Siddiqui’s mother, the command investigation into Siddiqui’s death, excerpts of testimony from Felix’s trial, as well as the results and charge sheet from Felix’s trial.
Kissoon’s lawyer had objected to their admission, and Purnell agreed. He said Kissoon’s actions were a contributing factor and “not the proximate cause” of harm in Siddiqui’s case, which involved a number of “failures” in leadership, he said.
Marine Lt. Col. Sridhar Kaza, one of the prosecutors, said Kissoon had “failed” by making a series of cascading decisions “to protect his own career” rather than look out for the safety of recruits.
Kaza claimed that Kissoon went from trying to reduce allegations of recruit abuse to “extreme leniency” toward drill instructors in fall 2015. Kaza said Kissoon had “unleashed” Felix onto Siddiqui’s Platoon 3042 despite knowing the allegations pending against him.
Kissoon, whose wife, Neeta, attended Monday’s proceedings, read a statement to the court, saying he has been “remorseful every day” and has matured into a better person, father, husband, son and Marine.
“I am extremely disappointed in myself,” Kissoon said. “I must be held accountable.”
He said he deserves no “special treatment” but asked Purnell to consider the sacrifices his family has made during his career as well as his past service to the country, which included six deployments to the Middle East.
Kissoon said he was born in Guyana, South America, moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, as a child and felt a calling to enlist in the Marines, which he did at age 21 in 1990.
Kissoon was relieved of his command on March 31, 2016 — a week after Siddiqui fell to his death from a third-story barracks after an altercation with Felix.
Marine Corps officials have said Kissoon was not fired in response to Siddiqui’s death, noting that the decision to fire him was made March 17 — the day before Siddiqui died — in relation to prior allegations.
At the time of Siddiqui’s death, Felix was under investigation for involvement in a 2015 incident in which a recruit named Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche was allegedly placed into a clothes dryer and interrogated about his Islamic faith.
Kissoon pleaded to negligent dereliction of duty for failing to follow the proper approval procedure before reassigning Felix to be a senior drill instructor of Platoon 3042 while Felix was still under investigation.
Kissoon admitted he should have informed Parris Island’s regimental commander, Col. Paul Cucinotta, under a standing order at the depot, but he did not.
“I knew he was under investigation,” Kissoon told the judge.
On the count of willful dereliction of duty, Kissoon admitted he failed to initiate an investigation when he learned of allegations of recruit abuse in which the recruit was stepped on by a drill instructor. Kissoon also should have notified Cucinotta within 24 hours of receiving the allegation, prosecutors said.
The charge of making false statements was in regard to an August 2015 statement Kissoon made to a Marine Corps assistant inspector general who was probing a subordinate’s complaint of reprisal by Kissoon.
That false statement was also cited in one of the counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. The second count alleged that Kissoon attempted to “impede” the inspector general investigation by providing a copy of his version of events to his executive officer while the probe was ongoing.
Lawyers said four or five other counts against Kissoon that were initially referred to a court-martial are expected to be withdrawn and dismissed by the prosecution, as part of the plea agreement.
Monday’s proceeding was downgraded to a special court-martial — a level below a general court-martial, which is the military’s highest level of court-martial.
One of the witnesses who testified in support of Kissoon during sentencing was Linda Anita Taylor of Benton Harbor, a retired Marine who was Kissoon’s supervisor starting in 1992 when they were stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
Taylor praised Kissoon’s record as a Marine and said knowing the charges he pleaded guilty to doesn’t change her opinion of him.
“Whatever mistakes and errors he’s made, I know he’s very sorry,” Taylor said.
A series of Marine Corps investigations conducted after Siddiqui’s death found systemic hazing and abuse of recruits within Parris Island’s 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, also known as the “Thumpin’ Third.”
Less than two weeks into boot camp, Siddiqui asked to go to the sick bay for a sore throat, but Felix ordered him to run several sprints across the squad bay until Siddiqui collapsed. Felix slapped Siddiqui while he was down, then Siddiqui got up and ran out of a door to the stairwell.
Siddiqui went over the stairwell railing, his foot caught, and he fell more than 38 feet to the concrete below, according to a report by Marine investigators.
The investigators concluded that “maltreatment” by Siddiqui’s drill instructor team was one of several factors contributing to his death. No one has been charged in Siddiqui’s death, and the Marines say he committed suicide.
Siddiqui’s family has said their son did not kill himself. His parents, Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui, sued the Marine Corps for $100 million last year, claiming their son was assaulted, hazed and discriminated against because of his Islamic faith, and that military officials were negligent in failing to protect him.
On Monday, a statement was released on behalf of the family through their attorney, Shiraz Khan: “The Siddiqui family’s heartache is immeasurable, and they find no solace for a loss in one’s pay and rank to be compared with the loss of their son. However, the fact is, a guilty plea is a guilty plea, but it is absolutely necessary that the entirety of evidentiary truths be disclosed.”
The government has asked a judge to dismiss the suit, saying that federal civil court lacks jurisdiction over the matter, which belongs in military court. A hearing is set for next month.
Testimony at Kissoon’s preliminary hearing last June focused in part on whose responsibility it was to ensure that accused drill instructors were assigned to non-training duties while under investigation for the 2015 dryer incident.
Kissoon’s civilian attorney, Colby Vokey, noted that the probe into the dryer incident was not under Kissoon’s purview; rather, it was the regimental commander, Cucinotta, who was “driving” the investigation.
Vokey said the prosecution granted immunity to at least five others involved in the allegations at issue, including Cucinotta.
“I think when you get cases that have so much attention to them, it’s hard for them not to be political in a lot of ways,” Vokey said.
“But make no mistake about it — Lieutenant Colonel Kissoon came in here and accepted responsibility for things he’d done wrong.”