Moments before a military jury began deliberating sentencing Friday near the conclusion of his court-martial, former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix addressed the court and, for the first time, spoke on the record about his life and family.
Felix — convicted Thursday of hitting, kicking and choking former recruits in his charge and of targeting three Muslim trainees with what one prosecutor called a “hate crime” — told jurors he grew up poor near Florence, Ariz., about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix, and that he and his six siblings shared with their parents a one-room trailer that was smaller than the courtroom he’s sat in for the past two weeks.
His and others’ testimony Friday was a stark contrast to the “bully” prosecutors described throughout the trial, and to a drill instructor at least one recruit testified was “notorious” on Parris Island.
Felix, 34, said his family had a small dirt farm and that, for dinner, sometimes all they had were a couple of saltine crackers with ketchup and pepper. His father was a Vietnam veteran — a sniper who also trained sharpshooters — and he traces his military roots back to to his great-grandfather, whose family moved into the Arizona territory before it was a state and who served at the very end of World War I.
“Gentlemen, you’ve got to forgive me,” Felix said after a long pause, his voice and lip quivering as he addressed the jury. “I’ve been a Marine for a long time — getting this emotional ain’t normal for me.”
Felix, a 15-year Marine Corps veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a mobile air-traffic-control team leader, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abusing recruits in his charge and targeting three Muslim former trainees with cruelty and maltreatment.
Felix was also slapped with a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank, to private.
While the sentence must still be approved by Marine Corps Training and Education Command’s Maj. Gen. Kevin Iiams, Felix will be housed temporarily in the brig at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where the court-martial was held.
Felix is the father of four daughters who range in age from less than a year to 12. He and his wife, Jean, have been married 14 years; their November anniversary occurred during his trial. He told the court his wife had a miscarriage after he was sidelined from his drill instructor duties in the wake of former recruit Raheel Siddiqui’s death.
The eight-man jury — half officers, half enlisted men — convicted Felix on eight of nine counts of orders violations for hitting, kicking, choking and ordering recruits to choke or otherwise abuse each other. He was also convicted of being drunk and disorderly, and of ordering unauthorized incentive training, or punishment exercises.
The jury found he ordered two Muslim former recruits — Rekan Hawez and Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche — into commercial clothes dryers in July 2015 when the men were members of Platoons 3052 and 3054, respectfully. Felix was convicted of turning on dryer with Bourmeche in it, only stopping the machine and opening the door to ask, “Are you still a Muslim?” Felix continued to do this until Bourmeche recanted his faith, the jury found.
And Felix was convicted of slapping Siddiqui — a Muslim former recruit whose March 18, 2016, death and the investigation thereof triggered a hazing probe at Parris Island — moments before the then recruit fell nearly 40 feet to his death.
After he described the abuse Felix had been convicted of, prosecutor Col. Jeffrey Groharing addressed the abuse of Siddiqui, Hawez and Bourmeche.
“If all that wasn’t bad enough — and it’s bad — what’s most troubling is the accused’s deliberate targeting of three Muslim recruits,” Groharing said.
“There’s no training value in that,” he said after describing what happened to the men. “That’s a hate crime.”
Jean Felix told the court Friday that her husband dreamed of being a drill instructor.
“Always,” she said. “He always wanted to train Marines. ... He wanted to give back to the Marine Corps, and what they’ve given to him.”
She told the court she and her husband volunteered together coaching youth soccer and basketball.
“He always says, ‘You have to grow where you’re planted,’” she said of her husband’s work with kids.
Lead defense attorney and U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges showed the court pictures of his client with his wife and children. One picture, showing Felix hugging his two oldest daughters the day he arrived home from Iraq, caused the gunnery sergeant to tear up — he blotted his eyes with a Kleenex, and his chin bobbed up and down.
“Initially — especially the Afghanistan deployment — following the deployments he got massive headaches and suffered from insomnia and sleep apnea,” Jean Felix told the court.
Joseph Felix said he picked up fly-fishing and has volunteered with Project Healing Waters, a non-profit organization that helps physically and emotionally traumatized veterans through fishing.
When he was sidelined as a drill instructor, Parris Island official moved him to the depot’s museum. Felix said he felt lost there without Marines to lead. His wife, who works at museum gift shop, according to its website, said it was hard for him to see graduating Marines and their families.
Felix has battled cancer and needs annual screenings, and his wife has a rare blood-court disorder, according to their testimonies, that makes the family’s Veterans Affairs healthcare benefits important. A punitive discharge — either a bad conduct or dishonorable specification — would mean they’d lose those benefits. And such a discharge — associated with his federal felony conviction in this case — would follow him into the civilian world and could, as Judge Lt. Col. Michael Libretto told jurors, impact his ability to find work.
Felix’s end-of-active-service date passed without his ability to re-enlist, already effectively ending his military career, his wife said.
Regarding the possibility of prison time, she told jurors: “If he doesn’t come home” — she paused to collect herself — “ the effects would be enormous.”
“We fully understand that his Marine Corps career is over,” she continued. “We get that. But without the ability for him to get another job, we’d be drowning.”