Federal Employees News Digest

Feds who have served: GAO seeks testimonials of hazing in military

Tight-knit organizations of all kinds—everything from kids’ clubs, to sports teams, to, yes, military services—traditionally make new recruits put up with unpleasant initiation rituals.

Nowadays, however, in the military there is supposed to be—and there is, under the law—a bright line between acceptable benign rites and unacceptable brutal mistreatment. Yet, the latter—"hazing”—sometimes remains a fact of life for servicemembers.

The Government Accountability Office, as part of an effort to assess and strengthen ongoing reforms, has announced a new effort at gaining data on the contemporary—and past—dimensions of the problem.

“GAO is seeking confidential input from victims who were hazed while serving in the military,” a GAO release says, announcing an open-ended survey. “[GAO] is interested in speaking with victims from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, including active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard member.”

“GAO is collecting such information as part of a review of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) efforts to prevent and respond to hazing,” the release states.

“Victims who are willing to share their perspectives on DOD’s efforts to prevent and respond to hazing, and the factors that influenced their decision whether or not to report the hazing, can schedule a confidential interview,” the release continues. “Victims do not need to have reported the hazing while serving in order to share their input with GAO.”

Hence, the agency is seeking stories of hazing abuses from the present and the past—including, if you have one, your story.

Persons who have experienced hazing are asked to leave a confidential voicemail at a dedicated number: (833) 679-2484. Or to send an email to militaryhazing2021@gao.gov.

Hazing: Persistent problem, impacting feds

Fully one-third of current federal employees have served in the military, according to government statistics. So unnecessary trauma from hazing suffered in the services bears strongly on federal careers—and the mental and physical wellbeing, of federal employees. It also bears on the accomplishment and efficiency of the government’s many missions.

Although some hazing practices are less so, some more brutal military hazing practices continue to be reported. Though severe events are relatively rare, reports have included “branding or tattooing, forcing someone to consume food, alcohol, drugs or other substances, [as well as] orally berating someone with the purpose of belittling, or humiliating,” according to a Congressional Research Service report published in 2019.

Such abuses can result in near-term health impacts—including death—and military unit cohesion and effectiveness. They can also affect long-term mental and physical health of victims, including sometimes resulting in “permanent injury,” the CRS report noted.

According to reports on the problem, filed annually since 2017, damaging hazing practices persist in the services. Last year, there were 183 complaints of hazing filed across the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines according to the military’s own reporting to Congress.

Of these, a majority 152 complaints came from the Marine Corps. About a quarter of these were classed as “substantiated,” while 42 percent remained less clear, classified as “pending.”

The official document, the Annual Report for Hazing Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces, was not publicly released. But a portion of its contents was recently obtained and published in Stars and Stripes.

That venerable military-focused publication noted a moderate drop in complaints in 2020—and noted that last year’s Marine Corps lion’s share of hazing incidents fits a pattern established over the half-decade since regular reporting began.

Hazing defined

What exactly constitutes hazing in the military? Every branch technically defines that for itself—but they all follow a common outline.

“Each service has its own standing general order with respect to what constitutes hazing, and exactly what is prohibited, but the definitions tend to be similar across the services,” Mike Hanzel, an attorney and expert in military law, including hazing cases, told FEND. “The buzzwords in the definitions tend to include ‘cruel,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘demeaning,’ and the like.“

For example, according to one definition posted online by the Marine Corps comes in the form of a policy letter, stating that hazing is characterized by the following:

"Hazing, is any conduct whereby a military member or members, regardless of service or rank, without proper authority causes another military member or members, regardless of service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to any activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning, or harmful,” states the “Hazing Policy Letter” issued by Marine Headquarters. “Soliciting or coercing another to perpetrate any such activity is also considered hazing.”

“Hazing need not involve physical contact among or between military members,” the policy letter adds. “[It] can be verbal or psychological in nature. Actual or implied consent to acts of hazing does not eliminate culpability of the perpetrator."

Hanzel, like the policy letter, notes that hazing is characterized partly in that it causes discomfort or even harm, without authority to do so. But he adds, importantly, that it also serves no approved military purpose.

“There is of course a centuries-old tradition in the military of toughening people up, having people do things that are different from civilian life, such as having to stand at attention, do physical exercise like push-ups, and even getting yelled at, and so on,” he said.

“But what you have in hazing is different,” he said. “Hazing is aimed at troubling or hurting the victim, and usually for the enjoyment of the perpetrator.” 

Hanzel discussed one particularly terrible case he handled years ago at a base in the Middle East, in which a senior enlisted servicemember hazed—specifically very badly bullied—several other men he outranked, and explicitly focusing on their sexual orientation. This resulted in tragic consequences, including the suicide of one victim, and several others separating from the military, traumatized by the experience. “That was the worst example I have dealt with personally,” he said.

“Sometimes, as in this case, people are targeted over their gender or sexual orientation—or race too can play a role,” Hanzel said. “And each of those kinds of biased acts is also, in and of itself, illegal and prohibited in the military.”

More often, Hanzel said, the hazing cases he sees take place on a smaller scale, and are less blatantly focused around a single prejudice. He offers the example of a drill sergeant who simply “goes too far” in being tough on a recruit. Or when “a single someone abuses their control over, say, five or 10 other people in an isolated environment.”

“Those are the kinds of hazing I’ve seen most often in my career,” he said.

Circling back to the definition of hazing, Hanzel emphasized that it continues to evolve.

“Our perception and the military’s perception of what constitutes abuse—specifically, hazing—has changed,” Hanzel said. “The military and society just didn’t see some things as abusive a hundred, or even fifty years, ago. Now that has changed.”

“Remember, in the military—for instance in boot camp, or afterwards depending on your job—there are situations where you might be yelled at or something,” Hanzel told FEND. “But the military definition of ‘hazing’ is aimed at drawing a line between authorized activities that serve a legitimate purpose, versus those that do not.”

Does the couple hundred military hazing cases tallied in the official stats last year understate the problem’s scope? Uniformed servicemembers number in the six figures, after all.

“I can’t say how accurate the military’s hazing statistics are,” Hanzel said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the real number is more than that reported, sure. On the other hand, we don’t really know.”

“I will say that there are reasons some people wouldn’t want to report having been hazed: embarrassment, fear of retaliation—or just a sense that it’s better to stay quiet and tough it out,” Hanzel said.

“The statistics do seem low,” he concluded. “Having said all that, the stats don’t surprise me. Again—hazing may, or may not, be underreported.”

The GAO has not issued a closing date for gathering testimonials for this project. If you or any fellow fed—or anyone else you know—suffered hazing in the service, the government’s top auditing agency wants you to phone in or email your story, to help document this scourge and develop better protections against it.

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