The practice of hazing encompasses more than the relatively innocent playing of a few pranks. It can also be a physically or mentally damaging activity that can lead to severe stress and, at worst, even death. Although many long-standing organizations such as the United States Army have traditions passed down through hundreds of years, hazing is no longer accepted as an innocent rite of passage for young newcomers. What might once have been accepted in the military as normal practise is, these days, regarded as brutal - even savage.
The University of Virginia defines hazing as "any activity that does not contribute to the development of a person." Activities that cause physical and mental harm, are degrading and humiliating, or willfully endanger the life of any person are all forms of hazing. The term originated with sailors in the 16th-century who would appease themselves on “hazy” days by harassing new recruits. Since then, the practice became common among fraternities, as a sign of empathy for the hardships suffered by fathers in the Civil War.
Today, violent and often disturbing hazing rituals used by institutions like college fraternities and sororities and - perhaps even more disturbing - military groups have been reported in news publications around the world. The military has imposed severe punishments, including imprisonment, for those who participate in these unauthorised practices. From news sources including The Military Times, The Navy Times, Vice and The Daily Mail, we've collated ten cases of the most bizarre, horrific — and sometimes fatal — military hazing rituals have entered the public sphere. Note that some graphic descriptions follow.
In April 2014, Cpt. Gregory McWherter was discharged from Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, and eventually reassigned. According to The New York Times, members of the Blue Angels' Aviators squad filed complaints that the Captain tolerated multiple incidences of lewd conduct. These were inappropriate comments, explicit humour, and even overt sexual "displays". It was reported the Captain encouraged such behaviour among the troops, a serious matter the navy has promised to investigate.
As reported in The Military Times, a Chief hazed female sailors by forcing them to march on board the Jason Dunham destroyer ship with bags of their own feces. The hazing was meant to be a form of punishment after a few of the sailors attempted to use toilets that were not working. When sailors ignored warnings not to use the toilets, all females were ordered to clean them, and 13 were ordered to march across the pier to dispose of the waste. The sailors were screened for infection because they were forced to clean the toilets without proper gear, such as gloves or mouth covers. As a result of the bizarre hazing, Cmdr. Kenneth Rice and Command Master Chief Stephen Vandergrifft were fired for witnessing the activity without filing any reports.
Aboard a Naval ship in San Diego, 8 officers were videotaped abusing and choking fellow sailors in a bizarre hazing ritual. The ritual was part of a rite of passage when a sailor was transferred to a new department. The sailor was choked so severely that he blacked out and had to be treated for injuries. As a result of the abuse, the 8 sailors involved were reported and discharged. However, a number of the men told reporters the choking was merely “play wrestling” and “boys being boys”. David, a 20-year old junior officer, told reporters that he believed the Navy’s zero-tolerance policy on hazing is too strict.
Firefighters often experience the same kinds of camaraderie and brotherhood as soldiers do, as both groups must trust each other in high-pressure, dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations. In a ritual caught on video, new recruits to the Wuda District Firefighting No. 2 Battalion were physically assaulted by senior firefighters. The videos showed shirtless men kicking and slapping recruits, and smashing uniformed recruit’s heads on the wall. Although the recruits were also hit in the face with belts, they did not yell, scream, or ask the senior members to stop as they took their “rite of passage” beating.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, Sgt. Phillip Roach collapsed to the ground and suffered multiple seizures. He was participating in a military hazing ritual that forced him to take a blow to the chest with a large wooden mallet. Roach came forward about the hazing and was given duties that were below his rank. As a result of the blow, Roach suffered bruising, staples in his skull sustained from the fall, and a heart condition called commotio cordis that can be fatal “up to 65 percent of the time.” The Sergeant who hit Roach with the mallet faced reprimands.
Many reports of hazing come from the active soldiers in the military. But there are also reports of incidences that occurred in military schools that enrol teenage students. At the St. John’s Military School in Kansas, 339 students reported being subject to hazing and abuse by senior cadets. One student, Michael Kelly, testified in court that he was subject to beatings. He also stated that he was branded, a method of body modification usually for cattle where a symbol, word or shape is permanently burned into the skin. Andy England, the president of the school, told reporters that some students see branding as “a badge of honour.”
Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, 21-years old, shot himself with a machine gun after a group of fellow soldiers hazed him one evening in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Lance Cpl. Jacob D. Jacoby was accused of kicking and punching Lew in the head and threatening bodily harm. Witnesses reported that Jacoby slapped the back of Lew’s head and threw sand in his face. Lew, a Chinese-American, was also the subject of racial insults and slurs. Jacoby and the other Marines involved were charged under Article 32 with "wrongfully humiliating and demeaning” Lew.
Pvt. Danny Chen of the U.S. Army committed suicide just one day before he was going to be transferred to Afghanistan. According to witnesses, Chen suffered from severe stress due to prolonged hazing and harassment that took a significant toll on his mental heath and on the performance of his regular duties. Sgt. Adam Holcomb is just one of the soldiers accused of hazing Chen. Allegedly, he referred to Chen using the racial nickname “Dragon Lady”, dragged him over sharp rocks, and forced him to crawl over dangerous terrain while beating him with rocks. Chen was only 19-years old when he took his own life.
In Fort Hood, Texas, Special Sergeant Jarrett Wright was sexually assaulted and violated by two Sergeants. According to Wright, all soldiers experience some form of initiation - but the same attack he experienced had been reported by several other specialists, indicating that sexual assault doesn’t occur in isolated instances. Sgt. Josue A. Nunez-Byers, Sgt. Brian S. Cornell, and Sgt. Shane M. Newitt have all been court-martialed for crimes that include sexual assault, hazing, and breaking-and-entering. Wright insisted his name be printed in the Army Times where the story first appeared in order to “prevent future attacks" on other soldiers.
Hazing in the military is not unique to the United States. Pvt. Andrei Sychyov of Russia was brutally hazed when his fellow soldiers forcibly confined him to a chair and beat him for hours while getting drunk. Although military doctors reported that his injuries were not serious, gangrene was found on his infected wounds. It became so bad that, in order to save his life, both of his legs and genitalia were amputated. In addition to the brutal and savage beating, it’s also reported that Sychyov was repeatedly sexually violated during the horrendous ordeal. Hazing rituals (also known as dedovshchina in Russia) like this are part of a series of hazing tactics reportedly common in the Russian army.