By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Despite top brass claims that the "blood pinning" of Marine paratroopers isn't tolerated, hazing occurs in every branch of the US military.
Interviews with several American service men and women reveal that, like college fraternity initiation rites, hazing has grown from unofficial rituals to sometimes violent traditions - and their superior officers know it.
"It goes on in all the services. It goes on in other countries' services," says David Segal of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization. "It gets people to identify with the organization." The US military has, he says, "tried to get control over" abusive rites, and those rites "involve less sadism than they used to." In its milder forms, some military officials and experts say, hazing can build morale and a sense of belonging that enhances discipline and teamwork. Senior military officials say there is a "zero tolerance" policy for barbaric practices. But questions about the extent of abusive hazing rituals are being raised now in the wake of the broadcasting of a 1991 video showing Marines brutally grinding medals into the chests of parachute school graduates, drawing blood. Active and former service personnel say the practice of blood pinning, though not as vicious as captured on the video, also takes place in the Army and involves men and women. Gantlets also commonplace They further assert that it is not the only hazing rite employing physical abuse. Soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, say it is a "tradition" for personnel who win promotions to be punched as they walk between dozens of colleagues arrayed in opposing rows. Senior noncommissioned officers preside over the gantlets, they say. "This happens all the time," one soldier says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some hit hard, some hit soft. Once, I saw a girl knocked down." Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concedes that "People get charged up in this business." But he adds that only "decent behavior" is tolerated. Critics dispute such assertions. They say rituals, encouraged in the military as ways of breaking down individualism and self-esteem, often embrace humiliating and violent practices of which commanders are well aware. "We get numerous calls from young men who have been brutalized, harassed and intimidated by superiors," says Alex Doty of the San Francisco-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, part of the GI Rights Network, a confidential counseling group for military personnel. Such critics point out that 52 marines have been court-martialed for hazing since 1994 and another 34 received nonjudicial punishments, including dishonorable discharges. Army officials say they do not keep statistics on hazing incidents. Several former and active soldiers, speaking in Monitor interviews, say commanders are well aware of the violent nature of some initiation rites. And though participation is declared voluntary, they say no one refuses. To do so brings a loss of face and ostracism. For those same reasons, hazing is rarely reported to military authorities. "It's a pressure thing, an honor thing," asserts Rick Poyner, a former paratrooper. …