Former Citadel cadet speaks out on hazing: 'Death was threatened'

Tyler Phillips braces for his time at The Citadel (provided)

By Natalie Caula

COVINGTON, G.A. (WCIV) -- James "Tyler" Phillips had a dream that started young, to become a naval officer. At 12, he began the journey as a naval sea cadet. His accolades before his high school graduation were countless, according to his parents. So, to Phillips, The Citadel seemed like a perfect fit. The 22-year-old man says now he realizes he was wrong.

"I got kicked in the back, spit on, just different instances like that and then it started ramping up from there," Phillips said.

He says the hazing began shortly after he refused an order from upperclassmen to haze a fellow cadet. Beating, harassment, humiliation, and hazing became his life at The Citadel, according to Phillips. His mother Donna Phillips says she could notice a change in her son's behavior, but he kept quiet, until one night in December 2009, four months into his freshman year.

"Me and my roommate were studying and six of them [upperclassmen] came in our room, asked my roommate to leave, then had myself and another cadet in the room and proceeded to talk or chat with us and basically told us we needed to leave. Bodily harm was threatened, death was threatened," Phillips said.

He claims the students tried lighting him on fire and even told him he should commit suicide to save them from dealing with him. They told him if he returned to the military college after his winter break, they would "take care of him." Phillips called his mother that night.

"I was scared because up to this point we knew something was going on because of Tyler's personality, because of the changes and of course Tyler didn't want to tell us. I knew then that all my fears, everything, was coming to a head there," Donna said.

Phillips: Waiting for answers

The night Phillips says he was threatened in December, his mother Donna says she e-mailed a Citadel administrator. What followed was a stream of phone calls, certified letters, and e-mails, according to Phillips.

Tony Phillips, Tyler's father, says he couldn't believe how the school's administrators were handling the situation.

"We went through every step that's required to get The Citadel, to get the administration to help us, reported it to the right people, went up the chain of command, and got side stepped, got lied to," Tony Phillips said.

After his freshman year at The Citadel, the Phillip's say they decided it was in Tyler's best interest not to return. The family says his grades had suffered, as well as his attitude. His father admits Phillips was difficult to be around following what he says happened at The Citadel.

Almost two years later, Tyler says he is trying to move on, but says he doesn't want others to go through what he says he endured for one year at the military college. He filed suit against the school earlier this week.

"It's not about the money," Donna Phillips said. "We want change."

The Citadel's attorney Dawes Cook says The Citadel took action against students accused of hazing Phillips. Officials say three of the students were issued 60 demerits, given 120 tours and a battalion transfer. The other three were issued 40 demerits and given 80 tours, according to officials with The Citadel.

"Citadel believed what happened to him shouldn't happen and it's something The Citadel has worked on diligently over the years but I know there were numerous inquiries made and The Citadel responded to all of those," Dawes said. "The Citadel's policy is very clear on that and they educate every cadet and that is they are encouraged, if a criminal act has occurred, to report that [to police.]"

Donna Phillips says their number one concern at the time was to take care of their son. She says they are still considering the criminal aspect.

Dreams dashed?

Because Tyler was attending The Citadel on a scholarship by the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) program, an investigation by the U.S. Navy was conducted and its findings reported in March, 2011.

In a letter, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David Steindl wrote:

"I ordered an investigation into the claims made by Mr. Phillips and his parents. The investigation substantiated that Midshipman Phillips was a victim of hazing by Citadel cadetsIn consideration of Midshipman Phillips mistreatment by fellow cadets while at The Citadel, Naval Service Training Command (NSTC) will offer Mr. Phillips another NROTC scholarship should he be accepted to any other institution that hosts an NROTC unit."

For now, Tyler is working in the IT department at a community college in Covington, Georgia. He says he'll work on improving his grades before deciding where to use his Navy scholarship. He hopes to get back on the path he started on as a child.

Tony says he is still dealing with major anger, and that The Citadel changed the course of their family's lives.

"It took away his dream. It took away our dream. We felt violated as a family, that you could take someone with that kind of aspiration, with that kind of courage, and tear them down to where they are so angry. That was wrong. That was terribly wrong," he said.