Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew – an automatic rifleman in 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines – killed himself at a tiny combat outpost in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during the small hours of the night on April 3, 2011.
Lew had previously been caught and corrected by Marines up to the Regimental Executive Officer level (not “punished”, as only Commanding Officers have the authority to punish) for sleeping on post at least four times in a 10 day period. In the hours preceding his death Lew had once again been caught asleep on post. Squad leader Sergeant Benjamin Johns allegedly radioed the instruction “peers should correct peers” to the two Lance Corporals that had found Lew asleep.
The Marines complied with Sergeant Johns’ order and dealt with Lews in probably the only manner that they knew how: with hours of physical exercises, verbal abuse, and even strikes and kicks. They were undoubtedly angry, tired, and disgusted with Lew’s repeated misconduct. Lew finally killed himself with a burst from his Squad Automatic Weapon after being left alone in the fighting hole that had taken him hours to dig: big enough so that he could stand up and not fall asleep on guard.
Sergeant Johns and the two Lance Corporals now face hazing and assault charges for their actions prior to Lance Corporal Lew’s death. I highly encourage readers to examine this story in greater detail at the Marine Corps Times website before continuing with this blog, as there are nuances that I have omitted.
Not unimportantly, Lance Corporal Lew’s aunt is US Representative Judy Chu of California. Since she released an official statement not as Lance Corporal Lew’s aunt expressing pain and sorrow at her loss, but as an elected US Congresswoman pressuring the Marine Corps to affix blame, I will quote her statement and respond at length:
“Harry’s death was a tragedy that could have been prevented. He was a patriotic American who volunteered to serve his country. No one deserves being hazed and tortured like he was, especially by (those) who are supposed to be fighting on the same side of the war. The military justice system must hold any wrongdoers accountable.”
I am not a monster and therefore sympathize with the Congresswoman’s understandably emotional reaction to her nephew’s death. Few people – given the circumstances – would say that Lance Corporal Lew deserved to die for his misconduct. Although the Taliban had attacked his squad’s outpost at least once during his 10 days there, no Marines were captured, killed, or wounded as a result of Lance Corporal Lew’s dereliction of duty and therefore his offense was not capital. But it was deadly serious. Every Marine knows by heart the 11 General Orders of a Sentry, of which the three most relevant to this situation are:
2. Walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing.
5. Quit my post only when properly relieved.
11. Be especially watchful at night and during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority
Falling asleep on post has traditionally been viewed as a violation of every single one of the 11 General Orders of a sentry. In a dirty, tiny, 12-man outpost in the heart of Taliban-controlled territory, falling asleep on post goes one step further and becomes a violation of the sacred trust that men in combat hold for one another. Lance Corporal Lew’s repeated dereliction of duty – whether due to exhaustion or mental instability evidenced by cognitive dissonance and the false escapism of sleep – was the physical equivalent of him telling his brothers, “Your lives are less important to me than my comfort.”
Marines react uncharitably towards those who betray the fraternity of the sword. Experience, maturity, and rank go a long ways towards moderating the subsequent reaction. In this case relatively inexperienced, immature, and low-ranking Marines were given a blank check to “correct” one of their peers, which resulted in physical exercises and even assault – but not the “torture” alleged by Congresswoman Chu. Hers was an irresponsible use of an inflammatory term, designed to incite emotion rather than promote evaluation of the situation as a whole.
In my 7 years as an infantry officer I can recall saying “police your own” a handful of times – none of which involved anything more serious than a uniform discrepancy or a hungover Marine. I was acutely aware of the assumed authority that such a statement conveyed to Marines who possibly lacked the leadership training or experience to properly wield it. When Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) – not peers – reported finding Marines asleep on guard duty, I usually authorized them to “fix it”; based on the maturity and leadership experience of the specific NCO I would sometimes authorize them to use physical correction – with the explicit instruction that the correction must be directly related to the offense and that they could not assault the Marines.
As I grew in experience in the Corps – particularly as a Captain – I learned to have the NCOs outline their proposed correction in detail for my approval. While a formal plan took away some of the basic satisfaction offered by immediate pushups or other favorite activities that could be construed as hazing, it developed leadership options for the NCOs, taught the offending Marines that correction did not have to be capricious to be painful, and maintained the dignity and respect of everyone involved.
The Marine Corps in recent years has begun cracking down on hazing, due partially to some severe cases that have brought negative attention to the Corps and partially in response to the group of concerned citizens universally derided by Marines as “The Mothers of America”. These well-intentioned citizens look at any form of physical correction with the myopic outrage of the protected, who arbitrarily apply their own comfortable standard of what is appropriate to situations and environments of which they know very little.
The Marine Corps acknowledges the value of physical correction in tightly controlled environments by highly trained individuals: specifically, the recruit depots and Officer Candidate School. Outside of formal schools, I cannot think of an instance where physical correction would be officially tolerated. General officers have been placed in too many uncomfortable public spotlights by subordinates’ cruelty to ever officially afford daylight between the regulation against hazing and the ubiquitous, unwritten acceptance of physical correction in lieu of formal charges.
It is important to acknowledge that hazing is wrong, as it demeans the individual and splinters the cohesion and esprit of an organization. But to label all physical correction as hazing is inaccurate and disingenuous. Each year, millions of young men and boys – usually encouraged by their families and loved ones – voluntarily subject themselves to grueling, painful environments where physical correction is not only accepted but is essential to the development of character, discipline, and camaraderie. For some reason “The Mothers of America” are tolerant of physical correction in football and intolerant of it within the military.
I am not a cruel man. I was raised in a firm religious environment, taught to respect myself and others, and have never possessed an aggressive temperament or the need to bully or abuse others. Yet I acknowledge the value of physical correction in a military environment when applied judiciously. “Pain retains” is a slogan that has sometimes been used to justify stupid and irrelevant hazing activity – yet I have no doubt that there is often value in creating a physical memory within a man to convince him that the cost of misconduct will outweigh the discomfort of compliance.
As an officer, I sought to be respected for my judgment, decisiveness, firmness, and fairness. There was no need for me to be feared – after all, I had Staff Sergeants and NCOs for that. At the junior levels of leadership – the most difficult level to lead, since you are often the same rank as the men assigned to you – leadership will most often take the form of setting the example, demonstrating exceptional competence, and sometimes building consensus. What it CANNOT devolve to is physical correction – peers are not in a position to do such a thing.
Some will disagree with me and that is their right. Some – perhaps even some in the military – will react with outrage and disgust to the idea that physical correction is ever an appropriate recourse and that a healthy fear – i.e., the knowledge that someone has the ability to levy physical discomfort on you – of NCOs and Staff NCOs can be a valuable tool to maintain discipline and ensure that men “do the right thing” even when they are exhausted, afraid, or complacent. Let me explain my position with an example from my personal experience.
In late April 2005, Kilo 3/2 embarked on a 6-day combat operation in the palm groves and dusty streets of Bani Dahir, Iraq – just south of the Hadithah Dam and overlooking a decrepit pontoon bridge on the Euphrates River. I was a young Second Lieutenant in charge of 55 Marines, a squad of Iraqi Recon soldiers, and 4 Amphibious Assault Vehicles. Our brilliant but overly aggressive company commander had promised the Regiment a nearly impossible series of tactical accomplishments; by the evening of the second full day Marines were literally dropping from exhaustion.
As the sun dipped behind high embankments to the west I decided to “go firm” with the majority of my Marines in a large house on the east side of the town. To prevent insurgents from infiltrating our position through unobserved avenues of approach – and to provide infantry overwatch for an M1 Abrams tank parked menacingly in the street as a roadblock – I established three 4-man security positions in the gardens and on a rooftop surrounding our firm base. The tank had been struck by an RPG fired from a dry wadi the day before and I was determined not to allow that to happen again. I liked tanks.
After completing security arrangements I crawled beneath a thick Korean blanket on the flat, chilly roof of the house, leaned back against my body-armor pillow and prepared to doze off for a few hours until it was my turn to man the radio. There was no moon and the town’s electricity had been knocked out the day before by an IED blast. I felt like I was drifting to sleep in a cave.
“Sir.” I awoke with a start to the hesitant tugging of my radio operator (RTO). His face was a faint blur against the night sky. It was late – or very early – and shiveringly cold. Something was wrong.
“Sir, I can’t get ahold of the guys on post. It’s been over an hour since the last radio check.” He was apologetic – no one likes to wake an authority figure from a sound sleep with bad news. It was probably why he had waited so long.
“Where’s OD?” I asked, hoping that this was something that my acting platoon sergeant could handle. I was warm and comfortable beneath my blanket; the night air was frigid against my cheek. I was prepared to make a comfort-based decision… until a nagging voice inside me forced out the next question.
“Which post didn’t answer?” I unexpectedly saw OD’s thick, massively-powerful shadow rise up from his sleeping pad against the wall. The RTO had woken him first. OD was shrugging into his gear in short, jerky movements that signaled intense rage. He stopped for a split second to spit out a response.
“All of them.”
Cradling my rifle comfortably against my chest, I followed behind OD’s squat silhouette as we picked our way to the first guard position in a trench by some palm trees. An infrared (IR) chemlight marked the spot for our Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and I instinctively stopped and took a knee about 15 feet behind the position to allow OD some space. Both Marines were asleep. I heard rough whispering and a thud.
OD stalked back to me and took a knee. If it had been daylight, I knew that the veins in his bull neck would be pulsing and a long, jagged scar would be livid against his thick skull. He had a gold star on his Combat Action Ribbon and a history of assault charges from before he was a Marine. OD was not a sergeant that you wanted to find you sleeping on post.
“They’re awake now, sir,” was all he said. I nodded and we moved to the next position. Same story – same rough whispering. When he came back to me, OD hung his head.
“It’s my fault, sir. I should have known they would be tired and toured the posts. I think we know what we’ll find on the roof.” He paused and I remained silent. We both knew that we had failed. It felt overwhelming and deflating, like returning from a dip in the river to see your canoe floating away on the current. It also made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle to realize that an enemy could even now be moving through approaches covered by sleeping sentries. We needed to get to the last post.
I was a few steps behind OD as he climbed the narrow, pitch black stairs to the final guard position on a nearby roof. Warm, spicy air clung to me for an instant as I stepped out from the stairwell and paused to adjust my NVGs. A green, grainy Iraqi soldier stared bemusedly back at me from his position next to a chest-high wall running the length of the roof. Night vision goggles limit your field of view and distort your depth perception, so I began to lower my head to search the roof for the Marines that were supposed to be on watch. OD found them first.
It was like a snake strike. That’s the best way I can describe it. There was a flash of movement at the edge of my field of view, an animal-like growl, and a Marine was being held by his throat over the edge of the roof. I glimpsed a twisted, terrified face – white against the dark green background of empty space. Instantly I averted my eyes, focusing on the pile of blankets and loose gear that had been the sleeping Marine’s cocoon. This was not something that officers were supposed to see.
“You motherf———,” OD was hissing into the Marine’s ear. “You fell asleep on post and let an Iraqi stand it for you?? I ought to cut your throat! What if I was a Muj? You think you’d be alive right now? Huh? Do you??” The Marine attempted to gurgle a response. I was slowly recovering from my shock at seeing a man held by his throat off a roof. This was not a movie. I had a responsibility to do… something. Or did I? I was pretty sure that I did.
My moral dilemma was cut short by the choking Marine’s panicked gasping for breath. That did it.
“Alright OD. That’s enough.” Whatever lesson had just been taught, I was certain that it had been learned well. OD swore disgustedly and released his grip on the choking Marine – who collapsed in a coughing heap against the cold masonry of the wall. The Iraqi soldier smiled awkwardly and gave OD a wide berth as we entered the stairwell.
Radio checks went like clockwork the rest of the night.
There is utility in judging Lance Corporal Lew’s situation not just for what happened, but for what might have happened. We read about the death by suicide of a young Marine and are able to assign responsibility or blame based on the testimony of other Marines from his squad. But imagine that an aware and tactically-savvy Taliban team had exploited the opportunity of a sleeping sentry and infiltrated the combat outpost, resulting in 12 dead men and a host of unanswered questions. Where then is the responsibility? Who then do we blame?
Is this scenario too far-fetched? Marines that served in western Iraq in August 2005 remember Operation QUICK STRIKE as a hasty operation mounted to recover the body of a missing sniper – part of a 6-man team that was wiped out by insurgents after the Marine on watch fell asleep. Afghanistan is a far worse environment than Iraq was in 2005. I don’t think the scenario is far-fetched at all. I doubt that Marines in Afghanistan are ready to bet their lives that it is.
The death of any Marine is a tragedy. Suicides are particularly difficult to accept. There is no doubt that there was a failure of leadership in the case of Lance Corporal Lew. He should never have been left alone on post after falling asleep four times; his peers should never have been ordered to correct him for such a serious dereliction of duty; and he should not have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse by the only “friends” that he had in a hostile country. That being said, Lance Corporal Lew was not tortured, nor was suicide the inevitable result of this situation.
A Marine is dead. As is so often the case, let us learn the lesson written by the blood of others and in so doing, perhaps prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.