Marine suicide sparks hazing inquiry
Sunday, September 18, 2011
HONOLULU (AP) — In the chilly pre-dawn hours of April 3 in Afghanistan, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew crouched down in the foxhole he'd been ordered to dig for disciplinary reasons — he'd repeatedly fallen asleep on guard duty — placed the muzzle of his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Three Marines — Lew's squad leader, a sergeant, and two of his fellow lance corporals — have been charged with wrongfully humiliating and demeaning Lew. The two lance corporals have also been charged with assault, and one was charged with cruelty and maltreatment.
A military Article 32 hearing on whether the men should be court-martialed on these charges was held earlier this month at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay.
In a case with mild echoes of the 1992 Hollywood movie "A Few Good Men," the hearing into the 21-year-old's suicide sought to determine whether Lew's fellow Marines hazed him in the hours leading up to his death. Testimony was also given that the Marines were trying to help Lew.
The commander of the Hawaii-based 3rd Marine Regiment, Col. Nathan Nastase, will determine whether the three Marines will be tried after he reviews the recommendations of the officer who presided over the hearing.
The hearing depicted a squad of Marines actively fighting on the front lines while at the same time dealing with Lew's problems. Commanders said in retrospect Lew may have been suffering from depression or some other medical condition.
Lew had fallen asleep several times on watch duty, when his life and the lives of his fellow Marines depended on him being awake and alert. His leaders tried various approaches to keep him awake, including taking him off patrols so he could get more rest, according to testimony at the hearing.
But on Lew's last night, those efforts escalated into alleged acts of violence and humiliation, according to the charges heard. The Marines are accused of punching and kicking him, making him do push-ups and pouring sand in his face.
Lew, the nephew of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California, joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Santa Clara High School and studying at Mission College in California. His first assignment was to join the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines at Kaneohe Bay.
In November, he deployed to Afghanistan. Four months into his tour, the Marine Corps sent Lew to join a squad at Patrol Base Gowragi — a remote outpost in Helmand province the U.S. was establishing to disrupt Taliban drug and weapons trafficking.
Enemy forces engaged the base on Lew's first day there, March 23.
That night, Lew fell asleep during watch duty — the first of four times he would do so in his 10 days at Gowragi.
A few days later, while the squad was on its own ambush patrol, he dozed off while on watch.
On April 2, the executive officer of the regiment, a lieutenant colonel, and the battalion executive officer, a major, found Lew sleeping on watch duty while they toured the base at 11 a.m. Lew's head was tilted back, his mouth was open, and his eyes were closed, testified Capt. Michael Regner, the Golf Company commanding officer who escorted the other officers.
The platoon's commander, 1st Lt. Jameson Payne, testified that removing Lew from the outpost wasn't an option.
"There was no reserve of Marines to replace a Marine who was tired. Everyone was tired," Payne said at the Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding.
Lew was found asleep on watch again the night of April 2 after he didn't respond to a radio check at 11:15 p.m.
According to a command investigation report, the squad's leader, Sgt. Benjamin Johns, told Lew's fellow lance corporals over the radio that "peers should correct peers."
Johns woke up another Marine who was due to relieve Lew at 1 a.m. and had him take over the job early. Lew was ordered to dig a foxhole deep enough for him to stand in, so he would stay awake while on watch.
The Marines confronted Lew about his falling asleep and critiqued his digging of the hole.
After 2 a.m. Lance Cpl. Charles Orozco III told Lew to do push-ups, crunches and planks. Orozco also told Lew to hoist a sandbag while exercising, and, according to the command's investigative report on the incident, stomped on Lew's back and legs if Lew failed to do his repetitions properly.
When the sandbag broke open, Orozco allegedly picked it up and poured it on Lew.
The alleged forced exercising is at the heart of Marine rules which prohibiting hazing.
Lance Cpl. Jacob Jacoby is also charged kicking and punching Lew.
Lance Cpl. Michael Morris testified that he told Jacoby to "chill out," and Jacoby stopped.
"It angered me a bit. I didn't like what I saw," Morris testified. "Whenever I see one of my peers strike my other peer ... it doesn't sit right with me."
Platoon commander Payne said he thought Jacoby just lost his temper and didn't mean to harm or haze Lew.
"I think he was upset Lance Corporal Lew was jeopardizing everyone's lives," Payne said. He later added: "There's a difference between hazing and assault."
Johns, Jacoby and Orozco each faces possible charges of wrongfully abusing, humiliating and demeaning Lew.
Lew left a note scrawled on his arm: "May hate me now, but in the long run this was the right choice I'm sorry my mom deserves the truth."
To Lew's aunt, what happened was clear torture.
"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 congresswoman said in a statement. "The military justice system must hold any wrongdoers accountable."
No one knows for sure whether Lew suffered from depression, which was also speculated.
Kim Ruocco, the director of suicide outreach and education for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said it's hard for people to self-diagnose, which makes it particularly important for others to take notice and suggest getting help.
"It's difficult for people to say 'I'm depressed' because they're afraid people are going to think they're just weak or they're tired or they're trying to get out of a duty," Ruocco said. "It's sad because he's in a combat zone — everybody's tired and everyone is trying to do their part. It exacerbates the issue."