In a dark room of bunk beds at Marine Corps boot camp came a cry for help: “Recruit down! Recruit down!” Zachary Boland, 18, was convulsing uncontrollably in his bunk, and could not be resuscitated. He was declared dead about 45 minutes later at a nearby hospital.
The Nov. 4 death of the former high school football player and Eagle Scout shocked fellow members of his platoon and prompted renewed scrutiny of Parris Island, South Carolina, the iconic training ground for enlisted Marines. The incident marked the second time in less than a year that a recruit at Parris Island died amid allegations that numerous drill instructors have hazed or abused those they are training.
But a Marine Corps investigation of the Boland case found an entirely different set of circumstances, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act.
Boland, of Madison, Alabama, died due to complications from pneumonia after concealing his illness from drill instructors in an attempt to avoid being dropped from training, the investigation found.
Boland’s parents have stayed quiet about their son’s death for months in part due to leeriness about all the attention the hazing allegations have received, they said in an interview. But they do not blame the Marine Corps for the death of their son and now want to encourage other recruits to pay attention to their health when they go through boot camp.
“You hear over and over that the fastest way off the island is graduation,” said Boland’s mother, Sam. “You know, basically just telling them to get through it: ‘The fastest way off the island is graduation.’ But that’s really not the fastest way. They get off that island really fast if they’re in it a casket, and these kids need to understand that if they get dropped, it’s okay. It’s not a sign of weakness to tell someone you’re sick. It’s not a bad thing to ask for help.”
Documents from the case and the Boland family describe a complicated set of circumstances that conspired against the recruit. The death ended the military career of a teen who had been preparing to be a Marine since the age of 11, and was interested in becoming an elite Marine Raider who carried out special operations, his parents said.
Boland was originally scheduled to report to boot camp in November, said his father, Bob. He reported several weeks early when a slot opened up in another class, but he was then sidelined after reporting soreness and swelling in his left leg on Sept. 23 during his initial processing as a recruit, the documents said.
Doctors diagnosed him with the bacterial skin infection cellulitis, administered antibiotics and released him six days later after also testing him at nearby Naval Hospital Beaufort for potential blood clots. By then, the training platoon Boland would have joined had moved on, and he had to start over.
Boland’s training was further delayed by Hurricane Matthew, which postponed the date of his last checkup with doctors about his cellulitis because of a week-long evacuation of recruits beginning Oct. 5. Boland was able to join a new platoon of recruits in late October, about a month after first arriving on base from Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in southwestern Georgia.
Boot camp, which thrusts recruits from across the country together in close quarters, is notoriously a breeding ground for germs. So when Boland began coughing regularly in the first week of training with his new platoon, it didn’t raise any concerns.
But there were signs of illness. Several recruits told investigators after Boland’s death that he had vomited on a lunch tray about a week before his death, and asked other recruits not to tell any drill instructors about it. They assumed that Boland did not want to seek medical attention that would force him to start over in training again.
On Nov. 1 – three days before his death – Boland also failed a timed two-mile run, even though other recruits said they had considered him a fairly strong runner, according to military documents.
Drill instructors interviewed after Boland’s death said he appeared to be an average recruit, and was “not one of the ‘problem’ recruits” in his platoon, the investigation found. One drill instructor said he assumed that Boland struggled because at 6-foot-2 and about 228 pounds, he was one of the larger recruits and may not have stretched well or eaten enough.
Bob Boland, an Army veteran who went on to a career with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said those descriptions “sound like Zach.” He repeatedly told his son before he shipped to boot camp that flying “under the radar” and giving his best effort was the best way to graduate from boot camp quickly.
“I know Zachary, and the last thing he was probably thinking was, ‘Oh, I want to get held back again,’” he said. “He’s thinking that I’m not that sick and I can probably get through.”
A spokesman at Parris Island, Capt. Gregory Carroll, said the investigation found that drill instructors did not deviate from the rules they are supposed to follow. Recruits are encouraged to seek medical care any time, regardless of the training they are about to do or whether a recruit passes or fails an event.
After Boland’s death, Marine officials invited the family to visit Parris Island. The Bolands did so late last year, meeting privately with Boland’s fellow recruits. The family gave Marines on the base special coins made in memory of their son, and the recruits showed them Boland’s bunk, which they turned into a shrine in his honor.
The Bolands attended the graduation ceremony for their son’s platoon a week later, even though he wasn’t there. They were “treated as honored guests,” but the event still came with an empty feeling as they watched other families celebrating with their new Marines, Bob Boland said.
“I would have given anything to have been in the other parents’ shoes,” he said.
Later this year, the family may have another chance.
One of Zachary’s younger brothers, Nathaniel, enlisted and plans to go to Parris Island after graduating from high school this month. Nathaniel once tried to talk his older brother into waiting for him so they could enlist together, but will now follow in his brother’s footsteps, his parents said.
“We respect these men that he was with, and we have no hard feelings toward any of them,” their mother said. “They all made the best decisions that they could with the information that they had.”