Special Photo: Tyler Phillips on Parents Day at The Citadel in 2009.
COVINGTON -- An honor student and Eagle Scout, Tyler Phillips entered The Citadel in August 2009 determined to excel in college and parlay that experience into a successful military career.
Nine months later, Phillips emerged from the military college of South Carolina angry and paranoid, a stranger to the parents with whom he once shared a tight bond, his grade-point average barely above 1.0, and his body nearly 70 pounds lighter.
Phillips has been recognized on the local level for his volunteerism and received national accolades for his involvement in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps. Neither Phillips nor his parents, Tony and Donna, ever doubted that he could handle the rigors of life at The Citadel. Having traveled all over the world to work on naval bases as a teenager with the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, he had first-hand knowledge of military life.
"We never had an inkling that he would struggle. This is the environment in which he thrived," Donna Phillips said.
But Phillips wasn't prepared to be daily hazed and harassed, beaten, and threatened with death, all of which he says he endured during his freshman year.
Phillips has filed a lawsuit alleging assault and battery and breach of contract by The Citadel. He is telling his story because he says he wants to change a pointless culture of hazing that he says has nothing to do with military training and that he and his parents allege takes place with full knowledge of the school administration.
"Hazing is one thing. The cover-up is the bigger crime," said dad Tony Phillips.
The brutality against Tyler Phillips began, he said, after he refused orders from upperclassmen to haze another cadet. As a freshman, "You're a pawn. Upperclassmen tell you what to do," he said.
Phillips said there is little adult supervision in the barracks. Two tactical officers were in charge of about 300 cadets in his company. The result is that the upperclassmen rule the school, and the Code of Silence, a well-known but unspoken rule, means than you don't talk about what happens in your company, no matter what.
"Hazing goes on throughout all companies at The Citadel. There are guys coming into class with black eyes and you ask, 'Are you OK?' and they say, 'Can't talk about it.'"
Phillips said freshmen -- called knobs because of their shaved heads that resemble doorknobs -- are made aware of the code early on at a midnight meeting held by upperclassmen.
"What happens there stays there. It's kind of like Las Vegas," he said.
Upperclassmen use intimidation and threats of bodily harm to get freshmen to assault each other and avoid potential punishment themselves, he said.
According to Phillips, after he refused to haze another freshman, he became a target. His decision to join the cheerleading team on the advice of his tactical officer only made things worse.
Phillips says he suffered daily abuse, including being kicked and hit in the back with broomsticks and rifle butts, called "faggot" and ordered to "skip like a girl" while holding hands with another cadet. His room was trashed regularly, his computer hacked into and homework and class notes destroyed, along with his uniform and boots. He alleges he was prevented from going to class by upperclassmen and even denied access to medical care.
Phillips said cadets in charge of his barracks prevented him from going to the infirmary during a bout with pneumonia when he was running a fever of 102 degrees. His illness progressed to the point that once he did get to the infirmary, he was kept there for treatment for two weeks, causing him to miss more class time.
Phillips' parents said they noticed right away that something was wrong during visits and phone conversations with their son.
"His personality seemed to change drastically," Donna Phillips said, adding that her son seemed angry and tense, began cursing and was visibly agitated on drives back to The Citadel following home visits, asking his parents to drop him off two blocks from the school so the other students wouldn't see them.
Between the start of the semester in August and Thanksgiving break, a little more than three months, Phillips dropped from his healthy weight of 200 pounds to under 140 pounds.
Things came to a head when, in December 2009, six knobs came into Phillips' room, ordered his roommate to leave, threatened to kill him and, armed with lighter fluid, threatened to set him on fire, he said.
Phillips' parents said they were notified of the incident after another cadet's parents called and reported it to them. They immediately began contacting school administrators.
Dawes Cooke, The Citadel's attorney, told the Citizen that physical abuse was not initially reported. But letters sent by the Phillips to administrators in December 2009 allege physical contact and state they are concerned for their son's safety.
"We were in constant contact with the administration. We got nowhere," Donna Phillips said.
Cooke said that's not so. He said administrators took the reports seriously and punished the offenders in the form of "tours," which involve marching while carrying a rifle for an hour in their spare time. Cooke said they were disciplined with between 80 and 120 tours, given demerits and some were transferred from their companies. But, he said Phillips "never complained of being physically assaulted. Even so, he was still advised of his ability to report to the police if he thought a crime was committed and he declined to do that."
Phillips acknowledges that he kept the gravity of the assaults secret out of fear.
"If I had gone to the police, I would have probably wound up in ICU or dead," he said.
Phillips said upperclassmen keep watch over who goes into the offices of tactical and sexual harassment officers to keep tabs on who may be ratting someone out.
Even details of letters sent by his parents to administrators appear to have been leaked, he said.
On one occasion, Donna Phillips was advised to send a letter outlining her concerns to Citadel President John Rosa. The Navy ROTC official who advised her also requested an email copy, she said. Before her certified letters were delivered, Phillips was confronted and threatened by upperclassmen, who told him his "mommy" had written the school and nothing had better come of the letter. Phillips himself was not aware of the letter until he was confronted.
The alleged offenders were also provided with copies of a letter Phillips wrote detailing the abuse prior to a hearing, and were allowed to interject during his testimony, he said. Phillips said he was not allowed to have his parents attend the hearing, though the parents of another cadet were present. He said he was alone in the room with six freshmen and two upperclassmen he accused of hazing and a couple of tactical officers.
"It was not a safe environment," he said. As a result, "I gave details enough not to be lying, but it was watered down."
Despite the trauma he suffered, Phillips was determined to continue on at The Citadel."It was a pride thing, to show them I'd made it through," he said.
But his parents, frightened by the rage they saw building in their son, said enough.
"I was not only afraid for our welfare but I was afraid for the other cadets. He had that much anger. He was going to hurt somebody,"dad Tony said.
Phillips is now back home in Covington and plans to attend college classes in hopes of raising his GPA. He is in therapy and dealing with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A Citadel ombudsman wrote a letter of recommendation attributing Phillips' academic failures as being "directly related to being the victim of mistreatment and harassment by a group of immature and misguided cadets at our school." The letter goes on to say that Phillips deserves a second chance to succeed in college and describes him as "a fine young man with many positive characteristics."
A Naval investigation into Phillips' allegations confirmed that he had been hazed and the Navy has agreed to transfer his scholarship to another institution if he is accepted. The investigation also concluded that the Navy ROTC acted immediately to secure Phillips' safety after learning of the hazing and officials in charge said they were disappointed that Phillips did not report the matter sooner.
Phillips said he decided to file the lawsuit to try to initiate change to a useless, demoralizing practice at The Citadel.
"If you talk to anybody in the military, they'll tell you they rely on their training. Training is not getting hit with broomsticks, jabbed in the face with pencils, beaten with a rifle until it breaks. That's not going to help you. Less than 10 percent go on to the military (after leaving The Citadel)," he said. "It's kind of hard to see how hazing is going to help out with being a doctor or lawyer, and it's not even going to help out with the military."
Phillips said most of the administration are Citadel alumni who turn a blind eye to hazing, despite a zero tolerance school policy.
Even parents are intimidated to keep quiet so as not to make matters worse for their child.
"Parents have fear instilled into them. Don't draw attention to yourself or your knob," Donna Phillips said.
A letter sent to parents by President Rosa in December 2009 makes light of "tall tales" they might hear about the rigors of life at The Citadel from their children during the holiday break.
"Some cadets may even use these tales to make a case for leaving The Citadel. Please listen to your cadet, but help them to appreciate their accomplishment in completing the first semester and encourage them to return," the letter states.
The Phillips' say they've heard from many families with similar stories of hazing. Whether those families are willing to go public remains to be seen, but they hope their story will encourage more discussion and bring about positive change.
"They took a part of him that will never come back. Fortunately, we got to bring Tyler home," his mother said. "He was beaten, he was bruised and battered, but we got to bring him home. My hope and prayer for Tyler is that he won't hide these things. He'll process it and it will make him a better man. We've told him, don't let it make you bitter, let it make you better and stand up for people that are being hurt."
Phillips still wants to join the Navy. He said he'll use his experience at The Citadel as a lesson hard learned about how not to treat subordinates.
The Citadel is now under fire -- a lawsuit has been filed alleging negligence in reporting an alleged sexual assault that took place at a summer camp run by the school and The Post and Courier, a South Carolina newspaper, has detailed other instances of hazing, even running a photo of a cadet with holes in his forehead from being stabbed with a pencil. SLED, South Carolina's version of the GBI, recently announced it is investigating Phillips' claims, along with other allegations of hazing at The Citadel.
Phillips is hopeful the publicity will bring attention to rampant abuse that he says is not only tolerated but a source of pride for Citadel alumni.
Asked if he thinks it's really possible to effect change at a 170-year-old military college steeped in tradition, Phillips doesn't hesitate. "Everything's possible," he says.