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.