The highest-ranking officer charged in connection with a string of recruit abuses that left one dead has pleaded guilty to three charges, and will receive a reprimand and reduction in pay by $1,000 a month for five months.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, 48, pleaded guilty Monday to charges of dereliction of duty, making false official statements and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Based on his pretrial agreement, he faced a max sentence of a two-thirds reduction in pay for a year and written reprimand, but no reduction in rank or prison time. He had faced a two-week trial.
On Monday military judge Navy Capt. Charles Purnell cited a “myriad failure of leadership” and said Kissoon’s actions were only “one in a legion of contributing causes” to the death of recruit Raheel Siddiqui.
As his wife of 26 years, Neeta, dabbed away tears, Kissoon read a written statement at the end of his hearing Monday saying he knew he’d made serious mistakes and was “contrite,” disappointed in himself, and “must be held accountable.”
A law firm representing the Siddiqui family released a statement regarding the hearing:
“The Siddiqui family’s heartache is immeasurable, and they find no solace for a loss in one’s pay and rank to be compared with the loss of their son,” the Shiraz Law Firm statement read. “However, the fact is, a guilty plea is a guilty plea, but it is absolutely necessary that the entirety of evidentiary truths be disclosed.”
The family has filed a lawsuit against the Marine Corps related to Raheel’s death.
As part of a plea agreement, Kissoon has filed a retirement request. He could face retirement as a major should officials up to the Secretary of the Navy determine the punishment is warranted.
A core part of Kissoon’s dereliction of duty charge was that he had failed to remove Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix from contact with recruits despite being told to do so both by the regimental commander Col. Paul Cucinotta and the colonel’s subordinates.
In November, Felix was convicted of abusing recruits and sentenced to 10 years of confinement. His case is being appealed.
During a 14-hour Article 32 hearing on June 5, 2017, eight witnesses testified about the goings-on in Kissoon’s 3rd Recruit Training Battalion ― known as “Thumpin’ Third” for its reputation of physical treatment of recruits ― leading up to the March 18, 2016, death of recruit Raheel Siddiqui.
Siddiqui had recently returned from suicide watch early in his recruit training cycle. He had attempted to tell drill instructors that his throat was sore and he needed medical assistance. But Felix began to scream at Siddiqui for not giving the greeting of the day, and made him run from one end of the squad bay to the other.
The recruit passed out and was then slapped by Felix, who claimed he was trying to revive him. Siddiqui then got up and ran away, jumping to his death from a height of nearly 40 feet.
Felix was also charged with other physical offenses against recruits, including forcing one recruit into a commercial clothes dryer while the drill instructor reeked of alcohol.
Five of eight witnesses called to testify in the first hearing for Kissoon last year were granted immunity, and a sixth testified as part of his own agreement. Most, if not all, were offered immunity and did not have to request it, a nontraditional practice at that level in most trials.
Kissoon’s civilian defense attorney, Colby Vokey, noted the judge’s comments when talking with reporters following the hearing Monday.
Though his client admitted his guilt, Vokey pointed to a number of other commanders both above Kissoon, who directed the investigation into Felix that had removed him from working with recruits, and below Kissoon, who were working directly with Felix leading up to Siddiqui’s death.
Siddiqui’s death was not directly connected in any charge to Kissoon. Instead it was past recruit abuse complaints against Felix and others that prompted a chain of events, which led to Cucinotta to order Felix to be removed from recruit contact months before Siddiqui’s death.
Kissoon’s other charges were related to an inspector general’s investigation the year before Siddiqui’s death, probing an alleged retaliation against a captain whom Kissoon believed had filed critical comments on an anonymous survey.
In early 2015, Lt. Col. Kate Germano, who headed 4th Recruit Training Battalion, received command climate surveys that characterized her as “hostile, unprofessional and abusive” and that she fostered a “toxic” work environment. Others described her as a “bold reformer.”
Germano was later relieved of her command and retired.
Prosecutors in Kissoon’s case characterized him as coming into “Thumpin’ Third” under orders from the then-regimental commander to shape up the unit. Officers who testified in his Article 32 hearing said he began cranking down on any allegation of recruit abuse.
But after the Germano incident, Lt. Col. Sridhar Kaza said in the Monday hearing, Kissoon “made a conscious series of decisions to protect his career” and began to get lenient with recruit abuse reports.
Kissoon’s attorney adamantly denied that in comments to the media following the hearing.
“He didn’t pull back, they said he did, but he didn’t,” Vokey said. He pointed to submitted testimony from senior enlisted leaders who said that the treatment of officers and drill instructors did not change.
Kissoon’s other charges ― making a false official statement, and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentlemen ― were due to his reaction to an equal opportunity survey that included negative comments.
He believed the comments were made by a disgruntled Capt. Stephen Grodek. And he told his executive officer, Maj. Orlando Giarratano, and another captain what he thought.
Grodek later did not get a coveted assistant directorship at the drill instructor school and believed Kissoon had retaliated against him. He filed a complaint with the inspector general’s office.
That’s when Kissoon made mistakes that resulted in the false statement and conduct unbecoming charges.
First he told the inspector general that he had not told either the captain nor major about his belief that Grodek was behind the critical survey results. Then he provided his written statement for the inspector to Giarratano before the major went to speak with the inspector ― a clear violation of policy and procedures set by the IG.
Kissoon said he had only wanted the major to look at his version of events so that he, Kissoon, could make changes if necessary.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.