Marine fights to salvage career

Former drill instructor fears outcome of discharge hearing
By Steve Liewer

February 25, 2008

SAN DIEGO – The abuse scandal involving drill instructors at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego has cost Cpl. Brian Wendel a shoulder stripe and, likely, his nine-year military career.

Now the Corps wants to take more.

A Marine jury in December acquitted Wendel of 15 of 17 charges, including all of the abuse allegations. Nevertheless, Wendel's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Robert Scott, wants the Iraq war veteran to be discharged under “other than honorable” conditions.

Besides the stigma, Wendel fears that classification of discharge could cost him future veterans benefits and force him to repay a $15,000 bonus he earned for re-enlisting in December 2006.

An administrative separation board composed of officers from the depot will meet tomorrow to determine whether Wendel should be dismissed, and under what terms. Wendel, 30, is making a last-ditch effort to salvage what is left of his military career.

“I'm passionate about the Marine Corps,” Wendel said. “It's very important to me to be able to serve out the remainder of my term honorably.”

The abuse of Marine recruits from Platoon 2167 in late 2006 and early 2007 has tarnished the service records of nearly a dozen officers and sergeants at the depot.

Wendel and two other drill instructors were court-martialed, and two more received administrative punishments. In addition, six junior officers and noncommissioned officers were relieved of their assignments.

By all accounts, then-Sgt. Jerrod Glass, the platoon's most junior drill instructor, treated his recruits harshly. According to testimony in his court-martial in November, Glass hit one recruit with a tent pole and gave another a black eye with a flashlight. He also stomped on recruits' bathroom kits, pushed recruits through doors and forced them to drink water until some of them vomited.

Glass said he learned his training techniques from the platoon's two most senior drill instructors, Wendel and Sgt. Robert Hankins. Glass said the depot's instructors, in hopes of better preparing Marines for combat in Iraq, routinely stretched rules that restricted when they could lay hands on recruits.

A military jury convicted Glass on eight counts of maltreatment, assault, destruction of property and orders violations.

Separate courts-martial cleared Wendel and Hankins of nearly all charges. Former recruits testified that neither was present when Glass abused them.

Glass was scheduled to be released Saturday from the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station after serving a little more than half of a six-month sentence. The depot's commander, Brig. Gen. Angela Salinas, granted him clemency after his testimony in Wendel's and Hankins' cases.

The two senior drill instructors fared better. Neither received a punitive discharge or jail time. Wendel was dropped one rank and Hankins two. Wendel also received a reprimand and Hankins was sentenced to 90 days of hard labor.

The prosecutions didn't sit well with the tightly knit community of retired Marines, who scoffed at the modern Corps' definition of abuse.

“You talk to any Marine Corps veteran, they've gone through things a lot worse than what we're reading about,” said James Ferris, 69, of Lakeside, who served for 20 years and now is a member of the local Marine Corps League detachment.

Wendel contends that Scott and other depot officials are piling on with the effort to boot him out under other than honorable conditions.

“They're trying to separate me based upon stuff that I've been acquitted of,” Wendel said.

For his discharge-board hearing, Wendel has lined up support from some Platoon 2167 recruits he was accused of abusing.

“I believe Cpl. Wendel was an excellent role model for Marines, and I aspire to be as good a Marine as he is,” Pfc. Christopher Longo, now serving at Camp Pendleton, wrote in a letter to the board.

Some of the letters are angry in tone.

“Is it not enough that you dragged his name through the mud, took away his rank?” wrote Lance Cpl. Skyler Weston, another Platoon 2167 recruit. “I am so sick of people telling me how wrong we were treated who were not there.”

Bill Paxton, a revered Marine veteran who still volunteers at the depot 25 years after his retirement as a sergeant major, believes Wendel deserves redemption.

“There have been a lot of Marines who have made mistakes and have gone on to honorable service,” said Paxton, a Santee resident who was San Diego County's “Veteran of the Year” in 2006. “Half the Marine Corps would be discharged already if someone hadn't given them a chance.”

Some military lawyers said the depot's command is within its rights to discharge a Marine whose record is blotted by a court-martial conviction, even if he was cleared of other charges.

“On a certain level, it strikes one as unfair. (But) it's quite common,” said Eugene Fidell, director of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, D.C. “The administrative side is simply getting rid of the people the military doesn't want.”

Even Ferris, who opposed the prosecution of the drill instructors, said it may be impossible for the Corps to keep Wendel.

“I can't find fault with the decision to (pursue a) discharge,” Ferris said. “Once the trust is broken, it's hard to rebuild.”

It's widely believed that Marine leaders are using these high-profile prosecutions to send a message that they won't tolerate hazing of recruits. In his letter, Longo bitterly described the legal action as a “public relations campaign to let parents across America know that the Marine Corp(s) is safe for their children.”

Wendel isn't sure what the future holds for him. He has decided to move his wife and three children back to their hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He is packing his things so he can move in with a Marine buddy while waiting to learn whether he can stay in the military.

If not, he knows his court-martial conviction almost certainly rules out a job in government or law enforcement. He may look for work in logistics, his Marine Corps specialty.

“I know I can make it out there, but I want to serve my time honorably,” Wendel said. “You can only step on a Marine so much when he's down.”

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632;