It was Friday night. The barracks were mostly quiet. I played video games with another Marine, Pvt. Wiley; we were drinking and trying to keep our heads down lest either of us get voluntold for police call.
We were feeling pretty good about our night when our door was beat on with a ferocity that could only mean a senior Marine had found us. Wiley opened the door, and there stood Lance Cpl. Redding. Senior to both of us, he had a mission for the two boots he knew he could trust—and find.
Redding was drunk but intelligible. He told us his car was missing, and he knew who had taken it. It was Pfc. Jeffery. Like us, Jeffery was a junior Marine, and I considered him a decent enough buddy, if somewhat of a shitbag (our casual term for less-than-stellar Marines). He was the kind of Marine who would occasionally show up late for formation or have a poor shave, which were essentially unforgivable sins for a junior Marine who hadn’t deployed.
Redding gave us our instructions: We were to wait for Jeffery, and when he returned, we needed to “correct” him. We harbored no illusions as to what that meant.
The barracks duty NCO (the sergeant in charge) opened Jeffery’s room, Wiley grabbed more whiskey, and we waited. We didn’t talk about what we were going to do—we hadn’t done this before, but we both had experience on the receiving end, so we both had an idea of what would happen.
Minutes ticked by, and then hours. We got progressively drunker as we waited, and by association, we also got angrier. Our impatience with Jefferey peaked, and Wiley sent him a text, asking when he would be back to the barracks. He didn’t give a clue as to what was waiting for Jeffery. I knew there could be no canceling this party, no derailing of the train, and that we had to carry out what we were tasked with. If we failed, we would get it twice as bad and so would Jeffery. In a way, I attempted to rationalize what we planned to do to him by considering it a favor—certainly we were trying to save our own skins.
Jeffery responded. Ten minutes, he said. Finally.
Now that we had a time frame, I could feel the tension rising. I started to feel queasy, the unsettling feeling you get when you know something bad is going to happen, but you can’t stop it. Wiley said nothing.
The door finally opened, and Jeffery walked in without the least bit of fear or reservation. He asked how we were doing; I grunted something. The door closed, and Wiley was on Jeffery in a heartbeat—grabbing him and throwing him to the ground. A second later, I stood over Jeffery screaming. I felt angry but I couldn’t remember exactly why. We tore at him with our voices and our hands. Jeffery didn’t understand what was happening—he definitely couldn’t figure out the why of it. In between our blows and commands, Wiley relayed Redding’s story of the car. Jeffery protested and struggled to explain his side of it. I backhanded him and asked him if he had asked Redding to use the car. Choking back tears, Jeffery explained that he had asked and gotten permission earlier in the evening, and then Redding took a nap, so Jeffery decided to go ahead and take the car. I looked at Wiley with confusion, not sure if this version of events would or should change our plans.
Jeffery viewed the momentary reprieve as an opportunity to get up off the ground, and as he did Wiley kicked him down and started to drag him to the shower. I turned on the water, and Wiley grabbed some bleach—an essential ingredient for any serious hazing. As Jeffery was trapped in the shower, we had him do pushups. Then situps. Up. Down. Up. Down. We mimicked the drill instructors from the recruit depots we had left only a year prior, but we were drunk, clumsier, and had none of their skill. All we had was anger and pain. We were a pathetic imitation, but one that hurt Jeffery far more than any drill instructor would’ve dared.
It wasn’t long before we were forcing Jeffery to drink from the bottle of whiskey. He complied with our every demand, probably in hope that it would pass easier, that we might not be so rough, or that we might decide he’d had enough.
He was wrong.
During one chug, he choked and spit out some of the whiskey. I instantly slapped him on the back of the head and punched him in the ribs. He really was crying at that point, with full tears streaming down his face. And so it continued. As it went on, we drank until the second bottle of whiskey was gone. The shower basin was filled with a disgusting mixture of water, mud, bleach, and blood. Things started to get nasty, and now Wiley led the charge like a racehorse unburdened by a jockey, a track, or rules to follow. His cruelty mixed with Jeffery’s desperation to escape his punishment.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Wiley and I knew how he felt. We had all been in this position before—the hazing was one thing, but the real fear came from being held captive by drunk young men who held a physical advantage and moral weakness over you. All three of us had been beaten before; we’d been dragged from our racks in the middle of the night by angry drunk Marines who were eager to transfer their own misery to someone else. It was unchaperoned violence reinforced by the feeling we had to live up to something. We had been chosen to do this because Redding knew we would make sure it was handled. On that night, I knew only that I wasn’t going to let a senior’s trust be wasted, and definitely not for a shitbag like Jeffery. It was so easy to dehumanize him. To dehumanize myself. To slip into the moment and be able to punch him and watch his helpless body—a body that was half my size—crumple underneath my blows. It felt so disgusting. It felt so good.
I’ll never forget his screams echoing off the block walls of the barracks. No one came to investigate. No one ever came to investigate these kinds of things.
Jeffery’s laundry joined him in the shower. Then his bedding. It mixed with the blood and the mud and the bleach. There was also broken glass; Wiley had smashed the whiskey bottle against the wall.
Jeffery wasn’t really crying any more. It was more a quiet sobbing in between retches as he heaved his dinner into the mess.
I wish I had called it off at that point. Thinking about it now, I wished I’d never done any of it, of course. Instead of putting an end to it, I murmured to Wiley that we needed to wrap it up. Wiley declared that I was being a pussy and I could go fuck myself. He knew better than to try to turn on me—he wouldn’t have won that fight—but I thought I could see him think about it, even if only for a second. But then he turned back to Jeffery, grabbed him, and hauled him out of the shower. I did nothing to stop him then. Instead, I walked away. I left the room. My night was over, but I knew Jeffery’s would continue. I heard his screams as I walked up to my room, up one deck up and several rooms over. Then I walked into my room and shut my door on the noise.
The next morning, I got dressed and walked to the chow hall to nurse my hangover with a sack lunch and some water. And I saw him. Jeffery. He looked so pathetic—like an abused dog. My heart sank. As I walked toward his table, I saw bruises around his collar. Scabs on his hands. His weak movements as he ate his food. I asked how he was doing. He looked up at me, not with fear or even anger, but with genuine happiness to see a friend. He meekly said he was doing OK. I told him I was sorry, and he said, “For what?”
I said nothing and walked out. I walked across the parking lot and up the stairs to my room as fast as I could. I threw up when I got through the door. I couldn’t process what had just happened. I knew what I had done to him, and I had a sense of my own personal failings, but I hadn’t understood how degraded HE was. To think so little of himself … to believe that he not only deserved that savage beating, but that he could also instantly forgive the perpetrators like that?
I couldn’t put myself in his place. What had we done to Jeffery?
He was a shitbag in that he was not a great Marine. His seniors hated him. Some of us hated him because he made our lives more difficult in any number of ways by being bad at the basics. But Jeffery was and is a good person. He was honest. He tried hard and he was a genuine intellectual. The contradiction of being a bad Marine but a good human was not one that we were programmed to accept. We were programmed to accept that a bad person could be a great Marine, and that the only thing that really mattered was being a good Marine.
I shrugged off a bit of that conditioning that day. From the time I walked out of the chow hall, I did and continue to do everything in my power to be worthy of Jeffery’s friendship.
There was no punishment, official or otherwise, for what Wiley and I did to him that night. There was never any reckoning or hashing it out. No one I know has ever mentioned it, not even in passing. I want to say that I learned a permanent lesson that night. I want to say that after Jeffery, I vowed to never put my hands on someone undeserving again and that I’ve held to that promise. But I can’t. That would be a lie.
I went to the brig for assault within a few months of that night. I broke another Marine’s jaw because he bumped into me while we were being collectively hazed in a midnight physical training session.
Even after 28 days in the brig, I didn’t learn my lesson. I was actively praised by several Marines for my aggressiveness and willingness to solve problems with my hands after breaking that Marine’s jaw. I was proud of what I had done. I framed my court-martial paperwork and hung it in my barracks room. I embraced my role as an enforcer, and I relished in the occasional fear I would see in other Marines’ eyes—even those who were nominally senior to me.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
But I have changed. A dozen years on, and somewhere along the way I’ve found myself using words like pacifism or nonviolence. It was no single event that took me off the path of violence and fear. It was a death by a thousand cuts, and one that I had to be willing to endure. I remember when I got out of the brig, I started saying something, at first ironically, then at some point in the years since, sincerely: “I am a reformed violent offender, I walk the path of peace, I hope I have the strength to not stray as you test me now.” I know that I could, at any moment, throw away the progress I’ve made. I know that all it will take is one moment—one perfect storm of events—and I’ll fall back into the ways of violence. At every turn, I must actively choose the path of most resistance, the hardest path, the one of peace.
I decided to commit this to writing, and to get it published, because I know that silence only serves those who don’t want change. I want change, and I want the world to know that I’ve changed. I will not allow myself to be complicit in silence. I have done bad things to good people, and the culture of the Corps enabled me, even if its regulations and orders did not. I’m too far removed to speak accurately on the culture of any unit in the United States Marine Corps today. I can only speak to my experience, well over a decade ago. Looking at the news, reading the stories of Marines across the globe, I think there is enough evidence to say the culture that I helped perpetuate and build is still going. It’s time to end that. The strongest voices in a struggle for change are those who experienced this firsthand. This is my contribution.
Editor’s note: Names have been changed in this essay.