$30M abuse case began at boot camp
Former Marine alleges torture, lies and cover-up
By Trista Talton - Staff writers
Posted : Wednesday Feb 11, 2009 4:28:40 EST
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Scott DiDonato was no stranger to the military when he arrived at Parris Island in October 1999. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1991 after serving nearly 3½ years. He said he cut his enlistment short to be with his mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Eight years later, he enlisted in the Marines and started over again. It would be a long, convoluted and difficult tale. Today, nearly a decade later, he is angry, bitter and suing the Marine Corps for $30 million.
DiDonato, now 38, went to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., in the hopes of launching a career in law enforcement. But shortly after stepping on the yellow footprints, DiDonato says, he endured torture at the hands of his drill instructors, setting off a chain of events that led to a hernia, a botched surgery, an other-than-honorable discharge and, he claims, lies and a cover-up performed by a series of high-ranking Marine Corps officers.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. David Nevers, said the service would not comment on the case except for this short statement: “The Marine Corps is aware of the claims by Mr. DiDonato; however, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this matter at this time.”
DiDonato, who changed his name from Scott Toelk in 2007 to honor a family member, also alleges Marines conspired to alter a congressman’s letter of inquiry into his claims of abuse at boot camp.
Among those accused of conspiring to mistreat and misrepresent DiDonato are Lt. Gen. Ronald Coleman, deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs; Maj. Gen.-select Robert Milstead Jr., head of Recruiting Command; Maj. Gen. Richard Tryon, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Brig. Gen. James Kessler, director of Manpower Management; and retired Col. Michael Applegate, DiDonato’s former commanding officer and current director of Manpower Plans and Policies Division.
“This is about Marines’ rights and violations of Marines’ rights,” DiDonato, a former lance corporal, said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t know they were going to put $30 million on it. They could have put $10 on it. It’s irrelevant. I don’t want to see none of what happened to me happen in the future.”
Honor, courage and ‘waterbowling’
After the Army, DiDonato pursued plans to become a state police officer and eventually earn a law degree, majoring in criminal justice at a local college back home in New Jersey. But he joined the Corps before completing the degree, deciding a stint as a military police officer would boost his career plans.
To DiDonato, it was simple: Serve four years, get out, join the Marine Corps Reserve as an MP and get a job with the New Jersey state police.
“Being prior service, the one thing I knew was I was already ahead of the game,” he said of going to boot camp. “I just fell in place. I became the guide. I was doing well.”
But recruit abuse began almost immediately, DiDonato said. Drill instructors would make the recruits in his platoon chug several quarts of water after chow, he said, and then would be denied head calls and forced to urinate and even defecate in their uniforms.
Long after DiDonato made his claims, a similar case, on the other side of the country, would make headlines. Sgt. Jerrod M. Glass, a drill instructor at MCRD San Diego, was found guilty in 2007 of cruelty and maltreatment, destruction of personal property, assault and violating orders on the proper treatment of recruits.
During his court-martial, witnesses testified that Glass and another drill instructor would line recruits up after meals and force them to down liters of water from their canteens. They referred to the ritual as “waterbowling.”
Two other drill instructors were court-martialed and a third was administratively punished.
According to his lawsuit, DiDonato “suffered the exact same abuse and maltreatment in 2000, and it was covered up even in the face of a Congressional Inquiry.”
In early 2000, the suit says, DiDonato was forced to down a gallon of water and, afterward, felt something rip in his lower stomach. He looked down and saw a bulge protruding under his skin, the suit alleges.
DiDonato’s drill instructor ordered him to “shut up” when he complained about the pain, according to the lawsuit.
A few days later, DiDonato was diagnosed with a hernia.
“When my side popped out, it all became a new ballgame,” he said. “I knew, right then, this was definitely not right. It’s not a thing about being tough. This is torture.”
DiDonato alleges he was punched in the face by a drill instructor after the hernia diagnosis, and suffered lacerations to the face.
“As a person who wants to be a cop, I’m supposed to be upholding the law. I’m looking at it through a legal point,” he said. “I’m seeing people getting abused around me. How can I go put a badge on and let this stuff happen? That’s why I reported it.”
Blowing the whistle
When he graduated from boot camp Jan. 14, 2000, he was assigned to Basic Marine Platoon, a placeholder for new Marines who are required to stay for various reasons. In February, he underwent surgery at Naval Hospital Beaufort, S.C.
It wasn’t until years later, he said, that he learned the surgery had damaged his internal organs. The lawsuit claims that it left him infertile.
Instead of allowing him to recover from the surgery, a DI allegedly berated DiDonato and forced him to walk around, climb up to the top bunk and wear utility trousers, even though the waistband rubbed and irritated the surgical area.
Sent home on convalescent leave later that month, DiDonato contacted his congressman, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., to report the abuse, seeking an investigation and a medical discharge. But DiDonato didn’t return to the Corps on time and was considered on unauthorized absence. He would remain UA until April.
DiDonato never reported abuse to the chain of command, and the first the Corps heard of the accusations was in communications with Andrews’ office. Upon his return, DiDonato was given nonjudicial punishment and sent to Marine Combat Training.
He repeatedly asked for updates on the investigation into his DI abuse claims throughout MCT, he said, and while attending the Military Police Basic Course. DiDonato said he was ridiculed by staff members at both schools for reporting the alleged mistreatment.
Assigned next to Security Battalion, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., he said he felt “the same indifference and harassment was going to continue” within a matter of hours after reporting for duty Sept. 2, 2000, the lawsuit states. He went UA for a second time and again contacted Andrews’ office for help.
When he returned to Security Battalion in mid-November, after more than two months UA, DiDonato was retained and put into a leadership position by Applegate, according to court documents. But as DiDonato prepared to take holiday leave at Christmas, the lawsuit alleges, Applegate reversed course and told DiDonato that he must take an other-than-honorable discharge or he would be sent to the brig and dishonorably discharged.
On Jan. 9, 2001, DiDonato was administratively separated with an OTH.
The discharge stripped him of any future military or veterans benefits.
That launched what would become several years of correspondence between DiDonato and his congressman and Marine officials, leading to a host of conspiracy accusations.
Like the Marine Corps, Fran Tagmire, Andrews’ deputy chief of staff, declined to comment because of the lawsuit.
One of the allegations in the lawsuit accuses Applegate and two subordinates at Manpower of altering a letter that the commandant’s office received from Andrews’ office. Court documents contain two letters with the same date and letterhead, both signed by Andrews. The version on file with the Marine Corps, according to the lawsuit, omits a paragraph critical of Applegate, while the original version sent to DiDonato includes the information.
More than four years after Andrews initiated the inquiry, the Corps sent the congressman a letter in January 2005 informing him the investigation into DiDonato’s claims had been closed in November 2000 “due to a lack of information.”
By then, DiDonato had long been separated from the Corps.
Rocky road to re-enlist
Determined to clear his record, DiDonato in 2003 contacted Applegate, who was then branch head of Manpower Plans & Policies, asking for an upgraded discharge or for the opportunity to re-enlist. He threatened to sue Applegate, who allegedly responded by offering to help DiDonato re-enlist, according to court documents.
In an undated letter, included among the court documents, Applegate appears to endorse DiDonato’s request to re-enlist. But the documents allege Applegate and a Marine captain told DiDonato that in order to re-enlist, he had to petition the Board for Correction of Naval Records to upgrade his re-enlistment code.
“While theoretically true, BCNR is the forum to get a re-enlistment code upgraded, Colonel Applegate’s overall plan was not correct, contained a serious omission of fact, and amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel,” the lawsuit states.
“There are several things in there that really, really harmed him,” said Phillip Stackhouse, one of DiDonato’s two attorneys. “The fact that they send Scott a two-page letter of recommendation, then that’s not the package they send BCNR. I mean, how can you explain that in any way, shape or form?”
DiDonato retained the Jacksonville, N.C.-based attorney in early 2008. As the two worked to build his case for re-enlistment, they obtained several letters of character, including one from a former drill instructor and another from retired Lt. Col. Al Bancroft, director of military affairs, Office of Veterans Affairs in Camden County, N.J.
In mid-October 2008, Marine officials — including Applegate — told Stackhouse that Lt. Gen. Ronald Coleman had agreed to meet with his client, Stackhouse said. A positive meeting with Coleman, the head of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, could mean things were looking up for DiDonato.
But a voice mail from Applegate to Stackhouse changed everything.
“[Coleman’s] willing to see Scott, but you cannot be part of this,” a man who identifies himself as Applegate says in the voice mail, which Stackhouse replayed for Marine Corps Times.
In another, the man calling himself Applegate says, “You really can’t be in the building. This is going to be a done deal, I believe.”
DiDonato declined the meeting. Coleman denied his re-enlistment.
Stackhouse and Washington, D.C.-based attorney David Sheldon filed the first of four lawsuits in December, and the remainder on Jan. 16. The Federal Tort Claims Branch has six months to respond.
If a response is not made, Stackhouse said, he intends to file the case in federal district court. He wants DiDonato’s original discharge upgraded to honorable and a positive re-enlistment code.
DiDonato said if he gets any money, he wants to donate it to children’s cancer research.
“I want the people who are responsible for what they did to stand responsible for what they did,” DiDonato said. “The cover-up’s gotta stop. I have real brothers in the Marine Corps. I want to see some changes.”