On the day a recruit died during training at Parris Island last year, the drill ­instructor accused of slapping the recruit ­moments prior to his death was not supposed to be working with recruits at all. 

The drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix, was at the time under investigation for a previous recruit hazing incident yet was working as senior drill instructor in violation of both verbal and written orders from the regimental commander that he and others facing allegations of misconduct not be in that position until after investigations were concluded, Marine Corps officials said. 

How Felix ended up in the recruit barracks that day in March 2016 is unclear and has become a central question for top Marine leaders. Many questions remain about the death of recruit Raheel Siddiqui, who — just recently returned from a suicide watch — ­allegedly passed out during training and was awakened by Felix slapping him in the face.

Siddiqui then bolted across the squad bay and leapt to his death from a height of nearly 40 feet.

The next morning, as the command staff gathered in the hectic aftermath of the death, leaders started connecting the dots. It was one of those "holy crap" moments, one witness recalled, as they realized that Felix had been Siddiqui's senior drill instructor despite unresolved allegations lodged several months before that Felix, while reeking of alcohol, had forced another Muslim recruit into a clothes dryer while questioning the recruit's faith.

Col. Paul Cucinotta, then-regimental commander, recalled in recent testimony that he turned to Felix's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, and asked him: Why was Felix in the platoon?

"Why didn't we talk about this?" ­Cucinotta asked him. 

"Had we talked about it, I would have tried to convince you to let him go back," Kissoon said, according to Cucinotta's testimony.

The Marine Corps later fired both Cucinotta and Kissoon. New details of the fatal incident and the commanders' response were revealed during testimony in an Article 32 hearing for Kissoon. Many of the details remain allegations that must be proven in the adjudication process. Yet what unfolded in Kissoon's June 5 hearing revealed a fuller picture of what some believed happened in the year leading up to and the weeks immediately preceding Siddiqui's death, and the command climate surrounding it.


Kissoon is the highest-ranking Marine officer known to face judicial proceedings for conduct concerning incidents that preceded Siddiqui's death. Witnesses at his preliminary hearing described him both as an "excellent," "hardworking" commander who cared about his Marines, while others recalled him as a protectionist, ­self-centered, "condescending" leader who cared only about his career.

Kissoon, a prior enlisted Marine with 27 years of service, including time on the drill field as an officer, faces three charges related to alleged conduct while serving as commander of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion: failure to obey a lawful order and willing dereliction of duty, false official statements and conduct unbecoming.

The prosecution pointed toward decisions they allege Kissoon made that put Felix back into the role of a senior DI despite the prior allegation and standing orders. During a marathon, 14-hour Article 32 hearing at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, eight witnesses testified on behalf of the prosecution, sharing details about a command climate under Kissoon that started out with strict investigations being bumped up to the regimental level.

Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, right, former commanding officer of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, faces charges linked to his conduct while leading the troubled battalion known for hazing incidents.

Photo Credit: Cpl. David Bessey/Marine Corps

An Article 32 is where the prosecution lists charges and calls witnesses to testify against the defendant. The proceedings are then reviewed to help determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a court-martial.

Witnesses said Kissoon was well known for his "redline" speech, saying that the one thing he absolutely would not tolerate was drill instructors abusing recruits.

But the practice of hammering offenders at the regimental level changed, witnesses said, after another battalion commander at Parris Island was fired following scathing command survey results by her subordinates. By most accounts, Kissoon then shifted his methods, choosing to handle allegations at the battalion level. 

Kissoon opted not to testify at his Article 32 hearing. Since investigations began into the March 18, 2016, death of Siddiqui, a 20-year-old recruit from ­Taylor, Michigan, some 20 Marines at Parris Island have been identified by authorities and associated with allegations linked to recruit abuse. Six of those have had charges referred to a review for possible courts-martial. One of them was acquitted and the other cases remain pending.

Two of those facing courts-martial are drill instructors Felix and Sgt. Michael K. Eldridge. Proceedings are scheduled for August and September.

Colby Vokey, lead defense counsel for Kissoon and a retired lieutenant colonel who worked as a military attorney and judge, says Kissoon has cooperated fully at all points with the investigation and has a blemish-free military record. Vokey stressed that Kissoon went to "extraordinary" lengths to create a safe environment for recruits.

Vokey declined to comment on the case, but Vokey did note that in his ­decades-long career he had never seen the number of immunities granted to prosecution witnesses as he had in this case. Five of the eight witnesses who testified against Kissoon were granted immunity to testify, and a sixth was testifying as part of a separate agreement.

Prosecutors have granted immunity to those in the regimental command and officers below Kissoon, circling their strategy around the lieutenant colonel.

A seasoned military attorney and law professor not connected to the case agreed it is unusual. 

Gary Solis served 26 years in the ­Marines, much of that time as an attorney. He has since taught on military law matters at West Point. Solis said he has seen a trend in recent years of military lawyers granting more immunities in cases; but five in a case such as this is unheard of.

But he did note that the facts of the case are far outweighed by its perceptions.

"Because it reflects in the mind of the public the conduct of boot camp instruction and the quality of its leadership, so it is very significant," Solis said.


When Cucinotta took command of the Parris Island regiment in July 2015, he received a positive reception from the staff but felt a "stress on the fringes" among the Marines. He attributed much of the strain to what was happening in 4th Battalion, the Marine Corps' only all-female recruit training unit. 

A week before, the 4th Battalion commanding officer, Lt. Col. Kate Germano, had been relieved after a command ­climate survey and subsequent reviews had deemed she was "hostile, unprofessional and abusive" and created a "toxic" environment. Germano has since retired and contends that her commanding officer undermined her by empowering "malcontents" in her unit to "foment dissent." Some of Germano's supporters have said that she was a "bold reformer" who "changed the mentality" of the battalion, leading to improved performance. 

Upon Cucinotta's arrival, command staff told him that Kissoon was "trying to change the culture down there" in 3rd Battalion, which had a reputation for a higher percentage of abuse allegations and investigations than the rest of the regiment.

A later inspector general's report showed that for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and the period of October 2014 to 2015, 3rd Battalion's portion of investigations among the four battalions rose then fell.

In 2013, 3rd Battalion had more than a quarter of all investigations and 21 percent of all substantiated investigations, according to the IG. 

In 2014, the battalion had nearly 40 percent of all investigations and one-third substantiated investigations in the regiment. 

In the three-month period of ­October 2014 to December 2015, the ­battalion's portion fell to 27 percent of all ­investigations and 20 percent of all substantiated investigations.

During those years, investigative reports and hearing testimony described numerous hazing incidents. One report alleged that a drill instructor poked holes in a recruit's face with a pen and the same drill instructor also rubbed another recruit's face with a hard-bristle "skuz" brush used to clean floors. Drill instructors slapped and choked recruits on multiple occasions and encouraged recruits to "police" each other through physical assaults.

Another drill instructor forced a recruit to give him access to his Facebook ­account and proceeded to harass one of the recruit's female friends. Another incident involved allegations that a drill instructor forced a recruit to do college homework for him. One drill instructor was accused of shoving a recruit's face into the sand during physical training. Another stomped on a recruit's back with his foot while the recruit was doing pushups.


In his hearing testimony, Cucinotta, who was granted immunity, described  Kissoon as a professional officer and a hard worker who cared about his Marines and was adamant about protecting recruits.

"My redline, [Kissoon] told me, is putting hands on recruits," Cucinotta said.

Col. Paul D. Cucinotta, former Recruit Training Regiment commanding officer, was granted immunity to testify against Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon. Like Kissoon, Cucinotta was relieved of command amid investigation into allegations of hazing by drill instructors.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Jennifer Schubert/Marine Corps

But in one investigation, it was Kissoon's own allegedly inappropriate response and reaction to the inquiry that would contribute to Kissoon's firing. 

In his first year as commander, Kissoon built a reputation as being hard on drill instructors, sending seemingly minor infractions that would have been handled at the battalion level to the regiment, creating paper trails that could damage or ruin careers, according to testimony at the hearing. 

"There wasn't a general concern for the Marines themselves, it appeared that [Kissoon] was more concerned about self-preservation than the welfare of company grades or the Marines," testified Maj. Orlando Giarratano, Kissoon's executive officer.

Giarratano, who was also granted immunity, said there was a "sense of a zero defects policy" among drill instructors and officers under Kissoon's command.

One recruit would allege months after the incident, that in July 2015 Felix was reeking of alcohol and forced a Muslim recruit into a clothes dryer while questioning his faith. The recruit involved in the alleged dryer incident did not report  it until after he graduated and left the depot, so that complaint did not reach Cucinotta until November or December 2015. 

Cucinotta testified that he met with Kissoon and at least two other senior staff of the regiment and battalion in November or December 2015, and said "Those [drill instructors] don't go back on the [parade] deck until after the investigation is completed." He was referring to Felix and others who may have been involved or had allegations pending.

Felix had been sent to work as a logistics chief. The other three were in positions not working with recruits when Cucinotta told Kissoon to not let them back with recruits. It wasn't clear from testimony if they had all been removed because of the investigation or were on routine rotations out of drill instructor duty, which is a common practice.

Vokey challenged Cucinotta as to whether he specifically told Kissoon to take away the drill instructors' campaign covers and belts, a practice called a "sit down" by some but interpreted in multiple ways by various witnesses who testified in the hearing.

"I don't recall saying 'take their belts and covers,'" Cucinotta said. "In my mind I had already resolved that they were not training recruits."

Near that time, on Dec. 21, 2015, Cucinotta signed Recruit Training Order 1306.4J, which specifically stated that any Marine facing adjudication or under investigation must receive the approval of the regimental commander to be reassigned.

Cucinotta assigned the dryer incident to Maj. Meghan Kennerly, the executive officer of 4th Recruit Training Battalion. Because recruits who were potential witnesses had left the depot months before, Kennerly had difficulties tracking them down to corroborate or refute the allegations. The investigation lagged.

Over the ensuing months, Kissoon would repeatedly check with the regiment on the status of the investigation into the dryer incident. He was short-staffed and missing a senior staff NCO in a key position and was worried about training companies being shorthanded, witnesses said.

Felix continued working in logistics. But unbeknown to regimental command, that would soon change.


The survey results that led to Lt. Col. Kate Germano's dismissal from command of the female recruit training battalion — and what that might mean for other battalion commanders — resonated throughout the Island. Especially with Kissoon.

Giarratano testified that when ­Germano was relieved, Kissoon seemed shaken with the possibility that a battalion commander could be fired for complaints by subordinates. "This could be me," ­Giarratano testified that Kissoon told him. "This could happen here."

Giarratano said when the survey for Kissoon's unit returned, Kissoon took it personally and told the major he knew that one Marine officer, Capt. Stephen Grodek, had made some of the negative comments. Kissoon said he planned to talk to the captain about his comments. 

"I said sir, I wouldn't try to assimilate that comment," Giarratano said. "I would take it with a grain of salt and let it be."

The survey was protected communication; it was supposed to be anonymous. 

Kissoon backed off. 

A short time later, Grodek came to Giarratano and told him that Kissoon had accused him of making negative comments on the survey, and in the same conversation told him he was not going to recommend him for a coveted Drill Instructor School position. Grodek had recorded the conversation.

Grodek asked Giarratano if he should report it to the inspector general's office.

The major did not agree.

"I wanted him to know that I didn't concur with what he was doing," Giarratano testified. "The military protects democracy, we don't practice it, and his investigation was going to cause problems."

Soon, Giarratano would be caught in his own quandary.

Grodek contacted the inspector general office, which launched an investigation into his retaliation claim against Kissoon. 

Before his interview with the IG, the major said that Kissoon wrote his own statement to the investigator and shared it with Giarratano in an email.

"I got a bad feeling about it," ­Giarratano recalled. Giarratano said he declined to read the email because he thought it was improper before speaking to the ­investigator himself. 

But Kissoon persisted with a hard copy and Giarratano read it. 

Kissoon told Giarratano that it was "imperative" that the two of them have similar statements, adding, "You know I never confronted an officer on any of the comments made on the survey."

Kissoon later told Giarratano that he didn't know the survey was protected communication. This shocked the major, he testified. Any officer, especially a field-grade officer, would know this.

"I knew he had to know," Giarratano said. "I couldn't believe he told me that. I couldn't believe it was happening."

The major was called in for a second interview with the investigator. The major alleges that in between the two interviews with the IG, Kissoon told him: "There was a way we could fix this, make it better."

Giarratano testified that Kissoon stood in the major's office doorway and told him, "You know that you will get the best [Fitness Report] I have ever given a major."

Giarratano sought advice from the regiment's executive officer, Lt. Col. ­Christopher Lynch, who has since retired.

Lynch, who'd served with Kissoon earlier in his career, testified that Kissoon was an "excellent" battalion commander and that Kissoon's No. 1 focus was to have drill instructors "do the right thing."

Lynch testified that the major was "distraught" when he came to talk about Kissoon's insinuations involving the inspector general investigation.

Giarratano "was facing a pretty serious moral dilemma," Lynch testified. 

"He wanted to remain loyal to his commander, but he couldn't let that go," Lynch testified.

But the major wasn't the first officer to say that Kissoon had tried to influence an investigative report, according to testimony from witnesses.

Capt. Eric Hegg arrived at Parris Island in July 2015 as a senior lieutenant. He was selected to investigate a recruit abuse allegation in which the recruit had suffered nerve damage to his wrist during alleged illegal physical training.

Through his interviews, Hegg discovered that a drill instructor in 3rd Battalion had allegedly forced recruits into the dip position, with their body weight balanced on their knuckles, and then elevate their feet on a deep sink ledge in the laundry room area. The drill instructor would then order them to "change the channel," meaning twist their wrists 90 degrees. 

As this happened, other recruits were forced to "wagon wheel" into the area, walking around the recruits on the floor and wiping tears from one recruit's face. One of the recruits suffered an injury to his wrist and was later dropped from training due to a "nerve palsy" that Hegg believed was caused by the illegal exercise.

While he was compiling his report, Hegg said Kissoon checked with him on the investigation and floated theories that perhaps the recruit had actually injured his wrist on the rifle range the week before. Hegg stood by his report.

When Hegg submitted his report to Kissoon, the lieutenant colonel marked it up with red ink and, the captain claims, insinuated that Hegg should change the wording to reflect that injuries may not have been caused by the exercise. 

That's when, Hegg said, Kissoon told him that it was "very important for his company grade officers to see eye to eye with him or things would go badly for them."

Hegg emailed himself a message on Aug. 19, 2015, to document the incident.

At the hearing, Vokey challenged Hegg's claims, asking if it was unusual for a commander to inquire about a report or to offer guidance to new officers on reports. Hegg, who was granted immunity, said it wasn't unusual to ask about progress but it was improper to suggest theories or try to influence what was being written, which is what he thought Kissoon was doing.

Vokey pushed further, asking if Hegg and other officers respected Kissoon's command style. People joked about his command influence, Hegg said.

Hegg, Grodek and another witness testified that it was common knowledge from the battalion rumor mill that Kissoon was known for trying to influence captains' investigative reports on recruit abuse. 

Kissoon's alleged behavior would hit another sticking point with Hegg months later when he, Capt. Gregory Duboff, a company commander, and Kissoon walked away from a formation greeting new recruits and Kissoon brought up recruit abuse allegations being ­investigated, laughing about them.

"Who would have known in order to fit someone in a dryer you'd have to put them in ass first," Hegg testified Kissoon said.

The lieutenant colonel went on to joke about a "fat recruit" being covered in Gain laundry detergent and pushed around the floor of the barracks, Hegg claimed. 

Duboff later testified that he didn't recall details of Kissoon's statements in that episode, but he didn't take it as seriously or as negatively as Hegg did. 

Hegg also testified that he didn't think it was proper, but also that it didn't rise to the level of disgracing the Marine Corps or officers. 

"No sir, I think a lot of Marines take on a cynical, joking attitude to lighten the mood," Hegg told Vokey.

The day of the alleged joke, Raheel Siddiqui had returned to the company following a 24-hour observation after threatening to kill himself. Reports would later indicate he never should have been allowed to do so.

Four days later Siddiqui would be dead.

Jeff Schogol contributed to this story

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.

In Other News
Load More