WASHINGTON — Despite top brass claims that the "blood pinning" of Marine paratroopers isn't tolerated, hazing occurs in every branch of the US military.
Interviews with several American service men and women reveal that, like college fraternity initiation rites, hazing has grown from unofficial rituals to sometimes violent traditions - and their superior officers know it.
"It goes on in all the services. It goes on in other countries' services," says David Segal of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization. "It gets people to identify with the organization." The US military has, he says, "tried to get control over" abusive rites, and those rites "involve less sadism than they used to."
In its milder forms, some military officials and experts say, hazing can build morale and a sense of belonging that enhances discipline and teamwork.
Senior military officials say there is a "zero tolerance" policy for barbaric practices. But questions about the extent of abusive hazing rituals are being raised now in the wake of the broadcasting of a 1991 video showing Marines brutally grinding medals into the chests of parachute school graduates, drawing blood. Active and former service personnel say the practice of blood pinning, though not as vicious as captured on the video, also takes place in the Army and involves men and women.
Gantlets also commonplace
They further assert that it is not the only hazing rite employing physical abuse. Soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, say it is a "tradition" for personnel who win promotions to be punched as they walk between dozens of colleagues arrayed in opposing rows. Senior noncommissioned officers preside over the gantlets, they say.
"This happens all the time," one soldier says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some hit hard, some hit soft. Once, I saw a girl knocked down."
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concedes that "People get charged up in this business." But he adds that only "decent behavior" is tolerated.
Critics dispute such assertions. They say rituals, encouraged in the military as ways of breaking down individualism and self-esteem, often embrace humiliating and violent practices of which commanders are well aware.
"We get numerous calls from young men who have been brutalized, harassed and intimidated by superiors," says Alex Doty of the San Francisco-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, part of the GI Rights Network, a confidential counseling group for military personnel.
Such critics point out that 52 marines have been court-martialed for hazing since 1994 and another 34 received nonjudicial punishments, including dishonorable discharges. Army officials say they do not keep statistics on hazing incidents.
Several former and active soldiers, speaking in Monitor interviews, say commanders are well aware of the violent nature of some initiation rites. And though participation is declared voluntary, they say no one refuses. To do so brings a loss of face and ostracism. For those same reasons, hazing is rarely reported to military authorities.
"It's a pressure thing, an honor thing," asserts Rick Poyner, a former paratrooper. He resigned from the elite 82nd Airborne Regiment last July after what he says was the Army's failure to properly investigate a racially motivated assault by military police officers on him and two friends.
Mr. Poyner, of Burbank, Calif., says he twice underwent blood pinning, in which the backs of medals were removed so that the short, sharp pins could pierce his flesh. The first occurred the day his unit graduated from basic training last June at Fort Benning, Ga. After the official awarding of service ribbons, unit members went through an unofficial ceremony on the second floor of a barracks.
"We went upstairs in groups of three. The lights were dimmed. Three drill sergeants stood in front of us. They hit pretty much as hard as they could on our chests on top of our service ribbons," Poyner recalls. "The points actually go into your skin."
Poyner says he and his classmates, including members of the other services and college cadets, were also blood pinned after graduating last July from parachute school at Fort Benning. After having their jump wings punched into their chests by their instructors, they submitted to similar treatment for the rest of the day from any jump school veterans they met.
"They'd hit you once and if you didn't go down they'd hit you again," Poyner says. "No one really screamed."
Poyner says he then returned to his original barracks, where his former drill sergeants also blood pinned him. In all, Poyner says he was hit five times that day.
Fort Benning, in a statement to the Monitor, says that any kind of initiation involving physical abuse is prohibited. But the statement did not specifically deny that such practices take place.
Equal treatment for women
Two soldiers at Fort Hood, speaking on condition of anonymity, say blood pinning occurs regularly when someone is promoted. One says he witnessed a woman undergo the ritual last year.
"After her promotion ceremony, she stood there with the rank pin without its backing on her collar tab. People went by one by one and hit it with a direct force punch," says the soldier. "She voluntarily had this done and afterwards showed people she was bleeding. She was clearly in pain." He says the unit's commanding officer left the room before the unofficial ceremony, which was presided over by a senior sergeant.
The soldier disputes assertions that the rituals build unit cohesion and military spirit. "Because the military's job is violence, it permeates every aspect of the military lifestyle, including the problem of family violence," he says. "It all revolves around the same culture."
He and the second Fort Hood soldier say promotion gantlets are also commonplace and that they have participated out of peer pressure.
Fort Hood officials could not be reached for comment.
Maj. Natalie Perkins, an Army spokeswoman, says the Army does not have a specific rule against hazing. But, she adds, all of the practices detailed by Poyner and the Fort Hood soldiers would be punishable under various provisions of the military code of justice.