For Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), military hazing hits too close to home.
Chu’s nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, committed suicide in Afghanistan last year after he was beaten and hazed while serving there.
Last month she and other Democrats called for a congressional hearing on military hazing, which the Armed Services Committee held on Thursday. Chu and two other Democrats sat in on the hearing to question military officials.
“It’s a difficult matter to talk about in such a public setting, but I feel like I have to,” Chu told The Hill.
Chu shared the details of her nephew’s hazing with the military officials at the hearing, saying Lew, 21, was beaten and sand was poured on his face after he fell asleep while on guard.
“Finally, 22 minutes after they stopped, at 3:43 a.m., Harry climbed into a foxhole and killed himself with his own gun,” Chu said.
“And what punishment was given? Virtually nothing,” she said. “In Harry's case three Marines were charged, one Marine was given just one month in confinement, two were found not guilty by a jury of their peers, fellow Marines.”
Of the three Marines charged in the case, one was given 30 days' confinement and a reduced rank and the other two were acquitted last month.
The senior military officials for the services said that hazing is not tolerated in the military and is not a widespread problem.
“The small-unit leadership failed. I wish I could take it all back. We should have done better,” Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett told Chu. “But we are aggressively attacking these societal concerns as hard as we could possibly take them, and you have our assurance on that.”
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III echoed Barrett. “Let me give you the bottom line up front: Hazing has no place in our Army,” he said. “We will not tolerate hazing in any form, and we will hold those in violation of this policy accountable for their actions.”
Despite the military officials’ assurances, Chu said afterward that she “did not hear anything” to satisfy her concerns.
“I thought that they continued to say what they always say, that they prohibit hazing and that these were isolated incidents,” Chu said. “I would have liked to have heard anything that would indicate that they are changing their policies and are taking hazing seriously.”
Chu and others took particular issue with the lack of statistics available on hazing in the services, which the military officials acknowledged needed improvement.
Barrett said that the Marines have started reporting and tracking allegations and confirmed cases of hazing.
Chandler talked about how much the culture has changed from 30 years ago when he was a private, and said that systematic hazing practices are not tolerated anymore.
“My experience in the Army is that we do not have large incidents of hazing throughout the service,” he said. “But we still have incidents like have happened here recently that cause great concern.”
Lew’s death, along with the case of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, who likewise committed suicide last year after a hazing incident in Afghanistan, have given the issue of hazing a public face. Eight people are facing charges in Chen's case.
Chu has been outspoken about Lew’s suicide since it occurred last year, and she organized the press conference calling for the hearing shortly after the first Marine in Lew’s case was given a 30-day sentence.
She said she wants to see the services start keeping better statistics on hazing incidents, and that the penalties for hazing need to be increased.
“Watching Harry’s parents go through all of this, they’re at the trial all those weeks — and just then to see that two of the three were let go with [a] not-guilty charge,” Chu said Thursday. "I believe that they do not take it seriously."