By Peter Sessum
In April 1994, I was standing on a drop zone after the final jump in Airborne School. Now, I was a paratrooper. It was a proud moment for me. I was still a new Private, fresh out of Infantry school and ready for my first unit.
A man who had jumped into Normandy about 50 years prior carefully placed my jump wings on my uniform. He pushed the pins through my uniform top and admired his work. Then, he punched me in the chest, sending the pins into my skin. He shook my hand and welcomed me into the Airborne brotherhood.
Truth be told, that old guy was pretty spry. The punch hurt more than the pins, not that I could feel anything over the pride I was experiencing. The tradition of giving “blood wings”, more symbolic than painful, is now illegal in the Army. It is considered hazing and therefore bad.
What is Hazing
One Infantry platoon I was in had a different tradition of hazing. They would grab the new guy, tape him up, cover him in talcum powder and shaving cream and drag him to one end of the hall. By the latrine door would be a knife so he could cut himself free.
Every time the new soldier would be giggling while trying to get down the hall. As soon has he would get loose, someone would slap a beer in his hand, pat him on the back and welcome him into the platoon then clear the way so he could go take a shower.
It is childish and stupid, but it was part of the process of becoming one of us. As stupid as it sounds, it was a sign of respect. One guy never got “balled up” and he was never really part of the platoon. It is also important to note that it only happened to new privates. If it was your second or third duty station, it was understood that someone, somewhere else had got you. The best part of getting balled up is you get to do it to the next guy.
Hazing in many forms is a way of welcoming soldiers into the unit. On paper, hazing seems abusive and mean spirited, but it is in fact good natured and fun. Hazing is not abusive. I will say that again so there is no mistake, hazing is not abusive. When it becomes abuse, it is bullying. And there is a distinct difference.
The tradition of the gauntlet is one that appears abusive, but isn’t. After a promotion, the platoon forms two lines in order by rank. The newly promoted soldier walks between the lines to be congratulated. If the soldier outranks you, he gets a handshake, if you are equal or greater rank, he gets a punch in the arm. At one time it might have been worse, but it isn’t cool to punch your friends in the gut and you can expect an ass whupping if you sucker punch a guy you don’t get along with.
Again, it all comes down to respect. If you don’t like the guy, shake his hand and let him move on. The spirit of hazing is inclusive, it is one of those stupid things that bring units together. Messing with the new guys also lets you know what kind of man they are. If you can’t take being told to get chem light batteries, a can of squelch for the radio, a box of grid squares, an exhaust sample for the mechanics, find soft spots in the armor or find some T-R double E (tree) batteries how are you going to handle it when the bullets start flying?
Everyone should be smiling, if no laughing, through the whole “hazing” process. It should be a bonding moment. It should not, however, make the subject feel bad. If the soldier feels bad abut himself, the unit or the Army, someone screwed up big time.
What isn’t Hazing
Some things that are called hazing are really seen as “corrective action” by the platoon. The infamous “blanket party” is one of them. Mostly, this is done in a training environment like boot camp or basic training. It is a last resort when the actions of one negatively impact the collected and no other method has worked. A pop culture reference would be the scene from the movie Full Metal Jacket.
We had a guy like that in my basic training platoon. Private (Pvt.) Simons. No one liked him and he kept screwing up and we would pay for it. Infantry is one of those jobs in the Army that does its training in one place. So we were stuck with him from basic all the way through Infantry school. In the end, he made it through unscathed. There was never the discussion of hurting him. We didn’t like him, but he was still a member of the platoon. I think it also had to do with the fact he was just a dumb kid with an attitude and not a colossal failure. I don’t know of anyone who has participated in a blanket party. But once again, it isn’t hazing, it is desperate action by desperate men.
Outright abuse is also not hazing, it is abuse. What Pvt. Danny Chen went through in Afghanistan last fall prior to him taking his own life was not hazing. That was harassment, abuse and assault. What his fellow soldiers did to him was a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the code of values that military members are supposed to uphold.
There is no reason a Sergeant should ever put his or her hands on a soldier. Unless that soldier is in the act of doing something that will put himself or others at risk, an NCO should have enough authority to make that solider stop what he is doing. Grabbing Chin and dragging him across the tent floor is wrong. No good leader would ever do that. Assaulting a soldier is never right and is not the way to exert your will.
There are some things that Chen was subjected to that were not abuse. It was just corrective action until someone cranked it up a notch. While seeming extreme to civilians, having a soldier low crawl across the ground is not abusive. If it is a punishment that fits the crime it is not a big deal. I have had to do it when I was a soldier. Crawling 100 meters like Chen allegedly had to do is excessive and under no circumstances should soldiers have thrown rocks at him.
My friend Jimmy and I make jokes about each other’s race all the time. It is because we both know the other is joking and it is based on a mutual respect. Infantrymen can cross the line when talking to each other. However, no one else can. Anyone that made a joke to Chen that did not have a mutual understanding was harassing that soldier. The difference is intent and it makes all the difference in the world.
What happened to Chen was wrong beyond words. In the end he took his own life in a Kandahar guard tower. His Sergeant failed him. A 19-year-old kid, fresh out of training and on his first deployment should have been protected. A brand new private needs to be taken under his team leader’s wing and taught how to be a soldier. If he made a mistake, he should have been guided back, not tortured. No soldier should ever feel alone on deployment.
The people responsible should be punished and then removed from the Army. How can we trust someone to defend the nation when they won’t even defend one of their own?
Chen should still be alive today and by now he would have been promoted to E-2 or even E-3 by now. After getting his new rank placed on his chest he would have had to do some pushups and had some water dumped on him. Smiling, he would have gotten up and shook hands with the members of his platoon. Some mild hazing like many of us have gone through. He should never have been harassed.
So you were there???
There is a lot more to this story than what the OCA-NY had portrayed to the media. When the truth is finally told, will you apologize for assuming the worst? Somehow I doubt it. It will all just disappear.
Were you there? If not, then there is a whole pot/kettle thing going on. For the record, the point of the article is to distinguish between hazing and harassment. The Chen case just gave me a recent example to illustrate the point.
As a journalist, credibility is important to me. So I have no issue with offering a retraction if anything I say turns out to be untrue. However, I got the actions against Chen from what the Army investigators say happened, not just from the media. I also did not speculate. I stand by the claim that outside of an immediate danger to others, there is no reason for an NCO to put his hands on a solider.
The site is still new, you might want to wait until there is more content so you can see the overall direction. Don’t be too quick to judge. And if you are a veteran, why not offer your voice to the site. There will be other contributors soon, you could be one of them.
I would like to take a moment to say thank you for the way you broke down hazing in this article. I am medically retired from the infantry (82nd abn) for ptsd with a 100% va rating. Some of my issues come from combat, but a significant portion come from hazing. I know with absolute certainty that the kinds of actions you described as inappropriate can have a powerful impact on the mind. My story has enough parallels with Pfc. Chen that I identify with him to a degree- certainly the degree of hazing, and dealing with suicidal thinking on deployment.
One of the biggest issues I still face is what I would call stigma indoctrination… I spent so long with so many people who defend essentially unlimited hazing for any or no reason, and who therefore place no importance on the emotional struggles of the abused, that my own mind works against me. I read about three articles before finding yours and they all were the predictable “I am a real man hazing is necessary in combat, you don’t know what it takes” perspective. Yours is the first that I find actually takes a reasonable position, and divides the acceptable and unacceptable aspects of hazing in a way I agree with.
I know there are more out there like me. Thank you for what you do.
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Your comment really made my day. That is what DTC is all about. Telling the stories or talking about the topics that no one else is. If you would like to share your experiences on the website let me know. We are always looking for new voices and perspectives.
Thanks again for the comment.
Peter…was it you I had take the exhaust sample to the mechanics? That was one of my better ones. That and having my new driver jump up and down on the top of the track to test the shocks. I got in trouble for that one by the 1SG. Not because he was jumping up and down, but because we wasn’t keeping three points of contact while on top. I had him make the correction and all was good (the shocks were good too).
Great post buddy. I too got my Blood Wings by a Veteran of D-Day. As you said, his punch hurt more than the pins. Afterwards, he gave me an open invitation to his house in Florida for steaks whenever I wanted. As you said, I was part of the brotherhood.
I also got my EIB the same way. After going “true blue” through the testing, I was one of the few that got our badges presented by our brigade commander. That short little Filipino hauled backed and punched hard. He hit so hard it bent the badge. He also handed each of us a Brigade coin. Later in my career, I was on the EIB committee for testing and he was our Asst. Division Commander. I heard the name but didn’t make the connection until he was walking around the testing site one day. At the award ceremony, he again was presenting the EIB’s but without the punch (the Army had changed the rules by then). Instead, he gave a symbolic tap with his fist. When the ceremony was over, I went over to him and started talking to him, after saluting of course. I showed him my bent badge and the brigade coin he gave me and he started laughing. His comment to me was that “things had definitely changed since that time.”
There is definitely a difference between hazing and harassment. I was hazed. My hazing was spending the entire two weeks of my annual training (when I was in the National Guard) looking for my “muster button”. Every new soldier who was on their first training was looking for their buttons. It was good, clean fun and when it was over, I didn’t have any hard feelings against those who had perpetrated the scheme.
I was a horrible hazer. I had new privates looking and doing all sorts of things. Nothing ever to put them in danger or harm themselves. Unless you would call having them go to the 1SG and ask for a PRC E-8 putting them in danger. My favorite thing about all of the hazing was that how other NCO’s would instantly know what was up when a PVT came to them asking for that box of grid squares, or the squelch remover, or the ST-1….the list goes on. They had once been the “victim” and were now part of the tradition.
Harassment on the other hand is unacceptable. You mentioned “Full Metal Jacket”. Another good example is “A Few Good Men” and the whole “Code Red” thing. Any time a soldier, NCO, or Officer puts their hands on another soldier, it had better be to save their life. I had to do it once on the grenade range when a soldier froze after pulling the pin. There were many other times I would have loved to “skull-drag” a private across the floor, but flutter kicks and push-ups work almost as well.
I don’t know Chen’s story, but I know Chen’s pain. Harassment is something that is hard to forget. It lingers in our minds slowly chewing away at one’s dignity, honor, and self worth. At some point, usually when life seems the darkest, despair sets in and we do things we normally wouldn’t do. Like take our own life. It should never come to that.
That was not me. I remember the incident and who it was but he would not appreciate putting his name online. I was messed with at Fort Knox, my first duty station. They got me because I wasn’t thinking, I stopped when it dawned on me that it didn’t make sense but it was too late. I got a good laugh out of it.