Raheel Siddiqui was a young Muslim who dreamed of becoming a Marine. At twenty, he started basic training at Parris Island, where barking drill sergeants transform callow recruits into elite killing machines. Less than two weeks after he arrived, Siddiqui suffered a mysterious and fatal fall. The Marine Corps says he committed suicide, but some think more sinister forces led to his death.
The motto of the Marine Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island is "We make Marines." Nineteen thousand recruits pass through the place each year, including every male would-be Devil Dog from east of the Mississippi and every female recruit from anywhere. The base is a monsoon of perpetual motion. Recruits with buzz cuts and earnest tan lines are up at 0400, standing at attention in front of their racks while drill instructors in short shorts and snug T-shirts crank the Lion King soundtrack on the duty hut's computer. The recruits bellow Good morning, sir and Aye, sir and hustle to the head before a predawn march to the mess hall. After swallowing down their morning chow, they're off to PT, the first ordeal in a day that won't end for another sixteen hours.
The depot at Parris Island occupies a peninsula on the South Carolina coast, not far from Port Royal and Beaufort. Its eight thousand acres of flat, shadeless terrain are punctuated by frizzy palmettos and oaks dripping with Spanish moss, which appear to be melting in the heat of the great American South. The depot's streets are named for sites of historic leatherneck sacrifice and triumph: Yorktown Street and Cuba Street and Boulevard de France. Soissons, Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Inchon, Bataan. Everywhere you can hear the thunder of bootheels striking the pavement, the husky tones of the DIs' cadences, the crackling of rifle fire on a distant range.
Basic training lasts twelve weeks. Not counting Sundays and processing, that's seventy days to establish esprit de corps and learn basic combat skills. Seventy days to get the moral compass back to north. Seventy days without television or junk food or girls sliding by on Instagram. Seventy days during which the only music is John Philip Sousa's greatest hits as performed by the Parris Island Marine Band and that damn Lion King soundtrack. For seventy days, recruits live life from chow to chow. In no time, their personal mantra becomes Semper Gumby: always flexible.
When Raheel Siddiqui stepped aboard the depot at Parris Island, in March of last year, he thought he knew what to expect. Siddiqui was a twenty-year-old Muslim from Taylor, Michigan, a city of sixty-two thousand a short drive from downtown Detroit. He'd first visited his local Marine Corps recruiting office in March 2015, during his freshman year in college, and enlisted in the Marines' delayed-entry program that July. After quitting school, he spent the next six months in a program of rigorous physical training and watched hours of basic-training clips on YouTube.
The routine for receiving fresh recruits at Parris Island never changes, so it's not hard to imagine Siddiqui's first moments aboard the depot. Around ten o'clock at night, the bus that brought him from the Savannah airport pulls through the security gate and halts before a broad brick administration building. A howling DI rushes onto the bus and instructs him and the other tenderfoots that they're no longer to use words such as I, me, and my. Instead, they will refer to themselves as "this recruit," a reminder that they henceforth exist only as part of a team. At the DI's urging, Siddiqui grabs his shit and hustles off the bus to a set of yellow footprints painted on the pavement. The DI tells the recruits that tens of thousands of Marines have started their military service standing on those same yellow footprints. The recruits learn three crucial articles from the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One says they must be where they are supposed to at the proper time. Another says that disrespect will not be tolerated. A third instructs the recruits to do what they are told without questions. After this lesson, Siddiqui and his busmates are rushed through a set of steel hatches that bear the inscription "Through these portals pass prospects for America's finest fighting force."
Recruits are brought in during darkness and receive their Yellow Footprints speech introducing them to twelve weeks of boot camp.
In the coming hours, Siddiqui will have his head shaved, he will undergo medical and dental exams, he will choose his life insurance, and he will surrender his personal belongings. Before any of that, however, he calls home. When his mother answers, he reads from a script: "This is Recruit Siddiqui. I have arrived safely at Parris Island. Please do not send any food or bulky items to me in the mail. I will contact you in seven to nine days by letter with my new address. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now."
The words Siddiqui recited to his mother were the last she ever heard him speak. Less than two weeks after that phone call, he suffered a fatal fall from the third story of his barracks. The Marines ruled the death a suicide, but Siddiqui's parents insist their son would never have taken his own life. And while the exact details of what happened in the days, hours, and minutes leading up to Siddiqui's fall remain obscure—hidden behind redacted government reports and the military's unofficial code of silence—the investigations that followed his death have revealed evidence of a hazing scandal unlike anything Parris Island has endured since the 1950s.
Raheel Siddiqui's decision to enlist in the Marines shocked everybody he knew. At the time he signed up, he was living with his parents and younger sister in Kensington Courts, a low-income project in Taylor. His father had been a T-shirt exporter in Karachi, Pakistan, before immigrating to the United States in 1990. Now he made three hundred dollars a week hand-assembling glove-box components for an auto-parts company. Taylortucky, as Siddiqui's hometown is known, is a white working-class community whose main thoroughfare is an inglorious six-lane lined with old discount-furniture outlets, fast-food joints, and shuttered used-car dealerships.
Siddiqui was a playful teenager with a wispy mustache, a high-wattage smile, and a taste for brightly colored dress shirts. A stabilizing force within his family, he had a job at Home Depot and no time for girls or mischief. After graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class in 2014, he took a full scholarship at the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus, just fifteen minutes from home.
Siddiqui studied mechanical engineering and robotics and thought he might like to join the FBI someday. Midway through his freshman year, he went to his local Marine Corps recruiting office and was sold a vision that promised a more direct route to the future he dreamed of than the one on offer at UM-Dearborn. In July 2015, he committed to four years in the Marines, went full-time at Home Depot, and dropped out of college.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the public fight between Donald Trump and the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain killed during the Iraq War, brought national attention to the distinguished service of Muslims in the U. S. military. But Siddiqui's enlistment, more than a year earlier, had nothing to do with politics. He saw the corps as a way to build a résumé that might interest the FBI and, especially, as a means of pulling his family out of poverty and into the middle class.
Siddiqui's mother, Ghazala, told me that his decision worried her from the start. She still saw Raheel as her plump-cheeked little boy. With his easy demeanor, he was more of a diplomat than a warrior. He didn't play sports. He'd never been in a fight. He'd never even been away from home before. Ghazala feared that he wouldn't be able to keep halal. But her son calmed her. Don't worry, mama, I'll find something else to eat.
Siddiqui knew he had all the intangibles of a good Marine. He was obedient, loyal, smart, a natural leader. Seventy-one percent of prospective recruits ages seventeen to twenty-one fail to meet Marine Corps standards, but he'd scored well on his aptitude tests and his muscle tone was deemed sufficient. Still, he weighed all of 146 pounds. To prepare for boot camp, he spent whatever time he wasn't at Home Depot working out. He joined a gym, did pull-ups in his doorway, and assembled an elliptical trainer in his basement. He bought vitamins, took swimming lessons, and built a set of Marine Corps pugil sticks to exact specifications. He drove a handful of other recruits to the workouts at the recruiting office. In time, he filled out. A few days before his departure, he reassured his mother again. Don't worry, I've been training six months and basic training is just a little harder. I'm a strong boy. I can do it.
The week before leaving for Parris Island, Siddiqui rushed around town saying his goodbyes and making final preparations. His friends at Home Depot threw him a farewell party, presenting him with a monogrammed wallet and an orange Home Depot work apron they'd all signed. Siddiqui's sister would turn seventeen while he was away, so he bought her a necklace and hid it at the end of a scavenger hunt.
On the afternoon of March 6, 2016, Siddiqui and his family went out for a celebratory lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Dearborn. They enjoyed plate after plate of salad, fried fish, and lamb. From the restaurant, they drove to nearby Sterling Heights, where recruits from the Detroit area sleep before heading to Parris Island.
Siddiqui advised his parents to make hotel reservations a full month and a half in advance of his graduation ceremony. He was already thinking about the ten-day leave he'd get after basic training wrapped. He'd have time to come back to Taylor, time to pay surprise visits to all his old friends in his new uniform.
The next day, exactly a year after he'd first visited the Marine recruiting office, Siddiqui became one of just four hundred Muslims to train at Parris Island since 2012. (Muslims make up less than a fifth of 1 percent of America's 294,000 active- and reserve-duty Marines and about 1 percent of the U. S. population.) Shiraz Khan, the attorney the Siddiquis hired after their son's death, told me that the young recruit was naive to think that his religion wouldn't matter. "He was too trusting," Khan said. "He thought he could walk into boot camp and even with the political climate, they'd look at him not as a Muslim but as another recruit."
During his first five days as a new recruit, Siddiqui completed the "receiving" portion of basic training. There was paperwork and blood tests and a lot of waiting in line. On the morning of March 12, he and fifty-eight other recruits were "picked up" by his new senior drill instructor. Siddiqui was assigned to training platoon 3042 and billeted on the third floor of the barracks that housed Company K of the Third Recruit Training Battalion, the so-called Thumping Third.
As Siddiqui was about to learn, drill instructors are the heart of Parris Island. Each Marine platoon has at least three DIs: a senior drill instructor and two or more numbered "hats." The more experienced hat is called the Knowledge. He teaches the ins and outs of being a Marine. The junior hat is the Heavy; he brings the pain. DIs are enlisted Marines, not officers, and most are around twenty-nine years old, with eight or nine years in the service behind them. Each is brought to Parris Island after exhibiting exemplary leadership and then schooled in the craft of molding soft boys into warfighters.
Marine DIs have one of the most demanding jobs on this green earth. Before their first contact with recruits, they receive eleven weeks of academic and administrative instruction and pledge to demonstrate "the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill." Once on the job, they go go go sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. They run everywhere—sometimes nearly thirty miles a day—and holler so much that their vocal cords swell to the thickness of a twelve-strand rope. Downtime is scant, maybe a few minutes set aside each day to huddle in the family minivan with their wives and little ones. Upon their shoulders rests the success or failure of each platoon in the U. S. Marine Corps.
Downtime is scant, maybe a few minutes set aside each day to huddle in the family minivan with their wives and little ones.
Everything about the DIs—their cuffed sleeves and wide belt, their boots, their campaign cover tilted to a severe angle—is meant to communicate a wrathful-God sort of authority. But with this power comes the occasionally irresistible temptation to abuse. In 1956, a drunk and frustrated Parris Island DI led seventy-four recruits into the gray waters of Ribbon Creek as a disciplinary training exercise. Six of his men drowned. A court-martial led to an involuntary-manslaughter conviction as well as a set of servicewide training reforms. In 1976, another DI threatened to kill a recruit and shot him in the hand with an M16. In 2007, a DI was convicted of assault after he used a tentpole to beat a nineteen-year-old recruit who couldn't remember the combination to his footlocker.
In an effort to curb such abuses, the Marine Corps Recruit Training Order explicitly states that "all personnel are prohibited from touching recruits, either personally or by use of a material object." Contact with recruits is allowed only for a few specified reasons, including corrective action—tweaking the angle of an elbow during a drill, for instance. Punching, kicking, swearing, and administering excessive "incentive training" (push-ups, crunches, and the like) are all forbidden. Despite these regulations, however, nearly four hundred hazing incidents were reported to the Marines between January 2012 and June 2015. A third of these allegations were substantiated by later investigations.
Until June 2015, when she was relieved of duty, Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano served as the commander of the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion, Parris Island's all-female training outfit. She told me that "physical abuse was tacitly approved" at Parris Island: "There's an undercurrent that it's okay." Germano also said that DIs have nearly complete control over the recruits' lives during the twelve weeks of boot camp. For the most part, she said, officers assigned to Parris Island have been reduced to little more than safety monitors. The DIs "created a culture that says, 'Officers have no place in making Marines. This is our world, and we run it the way we see fit.' " Germano told me that an unofficial rule at Parris Island keeps officers out of the squad bays, "where all that crazy stuff happens when it comes to hazing."
The Marine Corps has been stingy with the details of what happened to Raheel Siddiqui after he was billeted to the 3042's squad bay. But to understand what he was exposed to when he was picked up by his SDI, it's worth considering the experience of Thomas Weaver, a twenty-year-old who trained with a platoon in the Thumping Third a few months earlier. Weaver left the Marines in December 2015 with an other-than-honorable discharge. He is currently appealing that status and, on the advice of his lawyer, declined to comment for this story. But he gave interviews to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal this past September, before he began his appeal, and his father, Troy, spoke with me at length on several occasions.
Weaver grew up in Interlachen, a rural Florida town four hours south of Parris Island. He'd been a soccer and track star in high school and joined the Marines' delayed-entry program after graduating. Things took a dark turn when Weaver was called into his recruiter's office the day before he left for Parris Island. The recruiter was frank: Got some bad news. You're going to the Third Recruit Battalion. Worst one you could have got. It's tough. They have a reputation. But it's going to make you a better Marine.
Weaver said that he'd been at Parris Island for only a few days when he saw a DI slam a recruit to the ground, grab him by the throat, and cuss him out. When the incident was over, the DI allegedly stood and addressed the rest of the group: "Was I hurting that recruit or making a corrective action?"
Marine Corps recruits pull a ’wounded' marine across wet sand while under simulated attack.
"Making a corrective action, sir," the group responded.
"We were all too scared to say anything else," Weaver later told the Times.
Every DI in his platoon, he said, cited corrective action as an excuse for using excessive force. Often they didn't even attempt to justify their abuse. One day Weaver accidentally bumped into a DI from another platoon. The DI responded by bashing Weaver's head into the barracks doorway until other recruits pulled him off. When news of the assault reached Weaver's SDI the next day, he reasoned that the absence of red marks on Weaver's head meant that nothing had happened to him.
The SDI then smashed his own head against the cinder-block wall. He turned to his trainees. "See?" he said. "Those are red marks."
Weaver has alleged that he and his mates were abused with impunity. One recruit was brought into the woods and beaten bloody. On another occasion, the DIs ordered the trainees to form a human wall to hide a whooping. A later report into abuse in the Third Battalion cites allegations that members of Weaver's platoon were forced to crawl through thorn bushes with their blouses off, choked to the point of unconsciousness, and kneed in the face. One recruit reported having his rank insignia pinned into the skin of his chest at his promotion ceremony. Weaver never formally reported any of these incidents. He knew better than that. Snitches get stitches.
The most grievous offense Weaver observed involved a drill instructor who would later serve in Siddiqui's platoon, whom I'll call Daniel, and a Muslim recruit from Brooklyn, whom I'll call Ahmed. (The Marines have not released Daniel's real name, and Ahmed declined to comment for this article.) Weaver said that the Third Battalion DIs had been messing with Ahmed since day one. Twice he'd been sent to medical after punishing rounds of incentive training.
Then, one day in July 2015, a DI told his platoon that Ahmed was "probably a Muslim terrorist who is going to kill us all one day." That night, according to a later investigation, Daniel and another Third Battalion DI entered Ahmed's squad bay. Stinking of cinnamon whiskey, they pulled the recruit from his bed and brought him back to the shower room. Daniel and the other DI ordered Ahmed to march around with the water on and then to do push-ups, high-knees, and crunches. Once Ahmed was drenched, the DIs brought him to the laundry room and commanded all six feet and 157 pounds of him to get into one of the industrial dryers.
One day in July 2015, a DI told his platoon that Ahmed was "probably a Muslim terrorist."
"Were you part of 9/11? The Marine Corps pays me to weed out spies," one of the DIs told him. According to statements that Ahmed gave after the incident, a DI shut the dryer door and turned it on for roughly thirty seconds.
The DI opened the door. "Who are you working for?"
The DIs turned the dryer on for another thirty seconds. They opened the door. One of them asked, "What's your religion?"
The DIs turned the dryer on even longer. When they opened the door again, Weaver said later, he could hear Ahmed crying.
"You still Muslim?"
"Yes, sir!" Ahmed cried.
When the abuse finally ended, Ahmed had burns on his shoulders and back. A DI from his platoon told him, "It's fucked up what happened to you tonight, but you're going to say nothing."
"Nothing," Ahmed repeated.
The next night, Ahmed's toes were crushed with a guidon. A belt looped around his neck was used to walk him around the squad bay like a dog on a leash. A DI threatened to violate Ahmed with the guidon and to mount him in front of the other recruits to show how he felt about Muslims.
Weaver finished at the top of his basic-training class but hardly made it through the month of combat training that followed. He had trouble sleeping, spent time at the chaplain's office, and was so visibly disturbed that a staff noncommissioned officer allowed him to call home. At specialty school, after his depression deepened and he began thinking about buying sleeping pills, he found his way to the mental-health unit. In September, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch.
Weaver told his father about the abuse he'd seen and experienced, and one sleepless night, while considering his son's troubles, Troy realized: "This was freaking Parris Island. It's come back to get him." The next morning, Troy told me, he phoned Thomas's commanding officer and explained that his son had spent three months listening to lectures about core USMC values such as honesty and integrity while his DIs encouraged him to lie about being battered and humiliated. After the call, Weaver was summoned to the CO's office to supply a statement. Ahmed and a third Marine from their unit also gave statements.
Marine Corps recruits go through a team problem solving drill during the fifty-four-hour Crucible exercise.
Those complaints prompted an investigation, which resulted, according to a Marine Corps communiqué that circulated internally this past September, in "sufficient evidence to corroborate allegations of unauthorized incentive training and hazing because of religion and ethnicity, as well as assault." The investigation also found evidence that the DIs were drinking on duty. Daniel was suspended for a few months, but ultimately he and the other accused DIs were allowed to keep their jobs, free and clear.
The trouble in the Thumping Third went all the way to the top. The commander of the battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Kissoon, a twenty-six-year veteran who started in the corps as an enlisted man. The Parris Island brass had long been aware of the Third's troubles, and when Kissoon took over, in 2014, he considered stopping recruit abuse a priority. Soon after assuming command, he began relieving DIs of their jobs. He also ridiculed, belittled, and threatened his subordinates, often reminding company commanders that they could easily be fired. (He declined to comment for this article.)
Then, in the summer of 2015, Kate Germano was relieved of her command. She had overseen an improvement in the performance of the recruits in the Fourth Battalion, which saw none of the physical-abuse allegations that affected the Third. Nevertheless, an investigation concluded that she had "created a hostile, repressive, and unprofessional command climate." Germano told me that she believes she was done in by DIs who resented her insistence that officers have a presence in the squad bays. Whatever the case, Kissoon appears to have taken the lesson to heart. He became much more lenient with his DIs and acknowledged to more than one person that he did not want to suffer Germano's fate.
After the alleged hazing of Ahmed and other incidents came to light, officers under Kissoon's command offered several explanations for inadequately supervising DI behavior in their battalion. They claimed that the steady presence of an officer would undermine the DIs; that the officers avoided squad-bay decks because their appearance forced recruits to stand at attention, thereby interrupting training; and that there was no way of knowing "what was really going on because the DIs are with recruits 24/7."
According to a heavily redacted investigation report, Raheel Siddiqui had been at Parris Island for six days—and with his platoon for barely twenty-four hours—when he first threatened to jump from the squad-bay window. Such threats were not especially surprising in the early stages of boot camp, since it was well known that claiming to have suicidal thoughts was just about the only way for a recruit to quit basic training.
A DI tried to motivate Siddiqui: "How would your family feel if you returned home without becoming a Marine?"
When the pressure didn't work, the DI reported Siddiqui's suicide threat up the chain of command. Siddiqui told the DIs he'd had suicidal thoughts in the past, which he'd never mentioned to his recruiter. The admission was grounds for administrative separation from the Marines, but not even the possibility of being booted from the service for fraudulent enlistment changed Siddiqui's mind.
"The future doesn't matter," he told the DIs. "This recruit is going to kill himself."
Siddiqui was ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, and emergency medical services and military police soon arrived in the squad bay. Then and there, according to the report, Siddiqui told the MPs that he'd been screamed at and hit by his DIs and couldn't take it any longer. His DIs dismissed these complaints, describing their actions as normal drill corrections. Since Siddiqui hadn't actually tried to hurt himself, he was not taken to a hospital. Instead, he was "cross-decked": confined to a bed in the squad bay of an adjacent platoon and monitored by a "shadow watch"—another recruit—who was under orders to alert a DI if Siddiqui tried anything.
Before long, Siddiqui made a more specific threat to kill himself. He was brought in for an interview with one of the higher-ups on base. The interviewer knew about Siddiqui's claims that he'd been hit, but he never bothered to ask for details.
Kate Germano told me this was the usual practice at Parris Island. "All of these people fall under the regimental commanders, and all of the regimental commanders for a long time have had a rule that you don't ask hard questions." Officers tend to be hands-off, she said, because DIs "think making Marines is their territory. Period."
After his interview, Siddiqui was brought to Recruit Liaison Services, an office that evaluates struggling recruits and helps them return to training. Among other responsibilities, liaisons make sure recruits understand that the consequences of threatening suicide are irreversible. To foster an atmosphere of openness, the office has two waiting areas: one for recruits, the other for the DIs who bring them in. While Siddiqui provided his statement, however, his escort lingered in the recruit room. Siddiqui told the liaison, "This recruit thought threatening to kill himself was the only way to quit. This recruit is 110 percent motivated to return to training." His threats, according to the investigation, were treated as little more than the "magic words that would send him home."
Later, when Siddiqui visited the mental-health unit, an attendant reported no evidence of any "disqualifying mental-health condition." Siddiqui was sent back to the 3042. Daniel told the other DIs to go easy on the recruit for the time being.
The redactions in the command investigation make it difficult to know precisely what happened to Siddiqui over the next couple days, though it is clear that some recruits in the platoon were choked, beaten, and manhandled during training. It's also clear, thanks to a report in The Island Packet, a local newspaper, that at some point Daniel called Siddiqui a terrorist.
On March 18, five days after Siddiqui's initial complaint, Siddiqui woke his bunkmate after lights out. "I'm really hurting, man," he said. "My body—I'm in pain."
His bunkmate tried to settle him down. "We're all hurting, Siddiqui. Go to sleep."
The next morning, just as the 3042 was scheduled to leave the squad bay, one of the DIs gave Siddiqui a hard time for not sounding off. Siddiqui pointed to his throat and handed the DI a note: "This recruit has to go to medical. This recruit's throat has been swollen for a few days and is getting worse. This recruit cannot speak."
The DI promised postprandial medical attention. After breakfast, Siddiqui was called to the DI hut to fill out a form to get treatment. But Daniel became angry when the recruit failed to greet him properly. Siddiqui was ordered to run from one end of the squad bay to the other, roughly 144 feet, again and again. While running, he grabbed for his neck and began crying. He fell to the deck. Some of the other recruits thought he was faking.
Daniel screwed down on Siddiqui, screaming, "I don't care what's wrong with you, Siddiqui! You're going to say something back to me!"
When Siddiqui didn't respond, Daniel slapped him in the face "between one and three times"—so hard that the sound echoed across the bay. Siddiqui stood, clutching his face, and allegedly ran through the squad-bay doors. Once outside, according to the report, he approached the stairwell, "placing his hands on the railing and attempting to propel his legs over." His feet got caught in the railing, and he tumbled down the other side, falling 38.5 feet. He landed on a short flight of concrete access stairs.
Siddiqui was alive when the paramedics arrived five minutes later. They ruled out an airlift to a Savannah hospital on account of the weather and decided on an airlift to Charleston, which would take about a half hour. The paramedics transported Siddiqui to the Parris Island parade deck to meet the helicopter. Then they changed their minds, instead sending Siddiqui to Beaufort Memorial in an ambulance.
Siddiqui arrived at the hospital more than an hour after he went over the railing. His injuries were grave. The doctors determined that he needed to be transferred to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston after all. Siddiqui was admitted to the Medical University at 8:42 A.M., three hours after his fall. The doctors gave him blood transfusions and performed emergency surgeries, but they could not save him. Raheel Siddiqui was pronounced dead at 10:06 A.M.
A few days after a Marine casualty report called Raheel Siddiqui's death a suicide, the young man's corpse was returned to his parents in Michigan. His mother spent that night in the funeral home with her boy. She didn't believe the corps' story and hadn't since two uniformed Marines arrived on her doorstep to deliver the news. Her son had always been devout, and for Muslims there's no more grievous sin than taking your own life.
Around Taylor, folks went to pieces—teachers and staff at his old high school; employees at Home Depot; residents of Kensington Courts. After prayers one Friday in late March, members of the American Muslim Society mosque in Dearborn performed the Salat ul-Janaza, the traditional funeral prayer. They asked Allah to forgive Siddiqui's shortcomings and to grant him a place in the highest reaches of paradise. His casket was planted in the ground later that day, in the AMS section of Woodmere Cemetery in southwest Detroit. The crowd included Siddiqui's friends from Home Depot, as well as Debbie Dingell, the congresswoman who represents the Siddiquis' district. Many people from the mosque were conspicuously absent.
Some of these old friends called the Siddiquis at home: "On the news they say Raheel was a suicide. Was he weak? Mentally ill?"
Others were more direct: "We can't be seen with you anymore."
Certain that Raheel didn't take his own life, the Siddiquis hired Shiraz Khan. This past fall, in the drab mustard conference room of his office in Southfield, Michigan, Khan laid out the case against the Marine Corps for me. For one thing, he said, we know that Siddiqui had dared to accuse his DIs of physical abuse—a dangerous allegation in a place where retribution is common. For another thing, the official story requires us to hear in Siddiqui's suicide threats, which he later recanted, a sincere intention to end his life, even though those same threats were originally treated by the Marines as nothing more serious than the weasel words of a recruit who wanted out. Perhaps most important, the suicide determination obscures the Marine Corps' own judgment that "several factors contributed to Siddiqui's death, including maltreatment by his drill instructor team, leadership failures at multiple levels of command, and administrative and process failures that, if avoided, could have reduced the risk of his death."
Khan also suggested that the condition of Siddiqui's body told a far more insidious story than the one presented in the Marine Corps' report. An autopsy found that Siddiqui died of blunt-force trauma sustained during his fall. But it found other injuries as well. There were ligature marks around Siddiqui's neck that looked like a pattern of rope ridges. He had bondage marks on his wrists and ankles. His toes were crushed. And there was evidence of petechial hemorrhaging and bronchial mucosa—common signs of an airway obstructed by manual strangulation, smothering, or hanging.
For these and other reasons, Khan disputes the Marines' characterization of the young man's mental state at the moment he went over the railing. To say that Siddiqui committed suicide, Khan said, precludes the more likely possibility that the young recruit toppled over the railing while fleeing for his life.
And what about witnesses? Fifty-eight other recruits were in the squad bay that morning. Several invoked their right to silence when the investigators asked them for a statement. Others claimed they hadn't watched what happened because observing a fellow recruit receive incentive training could get you in trouble. But as Khan reminded me, the scene between Siddiqui and Daniel played out in the squad bay's center aisle, right in the middle of everything. The report mentions someone who heard Siddiqui hit the ground, but the unredacted portions of the investigation don't mention any eyewitnesses who saw his feet become tangled when he went over the railing.
Khan suggested that the condition of Siddiqui's body told a far more insidious story
Khan told me that the Marines have refused to allow the Siddiqui family to see the full, unredacted command investigation. Nor has the family been given 223 of the command investigation's 243 enclosures, including photos and witness statements. (A spokesman for the Marine Training and Education Command, which conducted the investigation into Siddiqui's death, declined to comment for this story.) For Khan, and for the Siddiquis, every part of this story stinks of negligence or foul play. "It all points to one conclusion," Khan said. "The best cover-ups are the ones carried out right in front of your face. This boy didn't jump. He was killed."
Kate Germano doesn't buy the official account of Siddiqui's death, either: "There was physical proof that recruits were being discharged and broken because of the training mechanism in the Third Battalion." She scoffs at the idea that Siddiqui became suicidal just eleven days after arriving at Parris Island. "How does this kid go from graduating at the top of his class, being beloved by his friends and the people he worked with at Home Depot, and being thrilled about becoming a Marine, to being a suicidal jumper with no other inside or outside factors? How is that possible? They don't break like that. They just don't."
Shortly after Siddiqui's death, the Marines started firing people. First up was Lieutenant Colonel Kissoon, who was relieved of his command of the Third Recruit Training Battalion on March 31. (The Marines have said that the decision was made a few days before Siddiqui's death, and had been prompted by earlier incidents.) Two months later, Kissoon's immediate superior, Colonel Paul Cucinotta, was also relieved of duty, along with Sergeant Major Nicholas Deabreu, Cucinotta's right-hand man.
In May, the hazing allegations made by Thomas Weaver and Ahmed and the investigations into Siddiqui's death were joined by a third: After receiving an anonymous letter alleging further abuse at Parris Island, President Obama called for an investigation of the Third Battalion. The findings of that investigation were terrifying. Recruits had been beaten by DIs and encouraged to fight one another. They were deprived of meals and forced to exercise until they went unconscious and then denied medical attention. They were also taken to "the dungeon," an unoccupied squad bay, and forced to do illegal incentive training while a lookout kept watch for roving officers. When the DIs involved were replaced and order was restored, the investigation found, recruit performance improved dramatically.
In the wake of the abuse allegations and the investigations that followed Siddiqui's death, fifteen DIs were stripped of their duties and reassigned to different jobs on the base. By September, that number had grown to twenty. At the time of this writing, the Marine Corps had identified four DIs who will face court-martials for abusing recruits at Parris Island. Daniel has not been charged, and the Marines did not make him available for comment.
At the time of this writing, the Marine Corps had identified four DIs who will face court-martials for abusing recruits
The internal communiqué sent to Marine public-affairs officers in September suggested several additional ways in which the corps is reforming its training procedures. The communiqué says that Parris Island leadership must engage in regular discussions and ensure that "any allegations are being treated seriously and objectively." Series commanders are now required to conduct private interviews with each recruit during training, and alleged violations of the Recruit Training Order must be reported by the first officer in the recruit's chain of command. Brigadier General Austin Renforth, who took command of Parris Island after Siddiqui's death, has instituted a policy that any hazing violation—hitting or even swearing at a recruit—will get a DI at least temporarily suspended.
Recent news out of Parris Island suggests that the reforms can't come fast enough. In early November, Zachary Boland, an eighteen-year-old recruit with the Second Recruit Training Battalion, died after being found unresponsive in his bed. Just a week earlier, a nineteen-year-old recruit named Kristian Gashaj went over a second-story railing and is currently in a coma.
Gashaj is from Sterling Heights, Michigan, not far from Debbie Dingell's congressional district. The congresswoman told me that she's been pressing the Marine Corps for more answers about the tragedies at Parris Island. "I can't bring Raheel back," she told me. "I've watched his family being torn apart. What I can do for them is try to get the finding of suicide changed. I understand that we need to make Marines, but targeting people because of their religion is not okay. When people hear about the kid being burned in the clothes dryer, that raises consciousness. I am going to fight hate crimes in the military."
In Michigan, Shiraz Khan told me that the Marines' reforms are entirely insufficient. "Are we supposed to just say, 'Oh, all good. They're going to make changes?' No. This young man is dead. His family is left with nothing. . . . He was going to take care of them. They've been boycotted by the community. We want the government to show these people that it loves them as much as they love the government, not to cast them aside."
Meanwhile, the Siddiquis await justice. Raheel's sister will graduate from high school this spring and attend UM-Dearborn in the fall to study nursing. She's now the family's last and best hope. Nevertheless, her brother's memory looms large. One of the neighbors who has not abandoned the Siddiquis screwed a sign into the cream-colored vinyl siding of their house. It reads, IF LOVE COULD HAVE SAVED YOU, YOU WOULD HAVE LIVED FOREVER.
Siddiqui's room remains exactly as it was last March. Prayer rugs on the top shelf in the closet. Certificates of achievement, graduation photos, diplomas, his valedictory medal. An embroidered passage from the Koran. A handmade tapestry depicting the Kaaba in Mecca. His mother hasn't touched anything, except for the clock on the wall above his bed. She removed the batteries and fixed the hands at 3:30 P.M.—when her son left their house for the last time.
This piece will appear in the March '17 issue of Esquire.
Lead image credit: Justin Metz