Image: Jim Miklasszewski
By Jim Miklaszewski Chief Pentagon correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/17/2005 7:39:47 PM ET 2005-02-18T00:39:47

An autopsy revealed 19-year-old Jason Tharp drowned last week during water survival training at the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.

Video shot on Feb. 7, the day before Tharp's death, by NBC affiliate WIS-TV in Columbia, S.C., shows Tharp, visibly shaken and almost terrified, taking a forearm shot from a Marine drill instructor.

In the Marines only five weeks, Tharp had written seven letters home telling his family he wanted out. His father, John Tharp, claims Jason had been singled out by drill instructors because he couldn't keep up with the rigorous basic training.

"I don’t know how they could treat my son the way we saw on that video," says Tharp. "He never hurt nobody. He'd do anything anybody asked him."

During last week's training, Tharp, seen on the WIS-TV video, at first refused to get into the water.

"He's just afraid because he is not able to do the swim correctly right now, and he just wants to leave and go home," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Davis on the Feb. 7 videotape.

After 20 minutes of trying to coax Tharp into the pool, the drill instructor turned physical in apparent violation of Marine Corps regulations — striking Tharp across the chest.

"That right there, where this Marine grabs the recruit, this is not how you treat recruits," said Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, when NBC News showed him the video. "I mean, this is a wrongful touching. Basically, it's an assault."

Marine Corps officials say Tharp voluntarily entered the pool the next day, where he drowned during a 25-meter swim. Officials also say there's no early evidence of any misconduct by Marine instructors at the time Jason drowned, but the conduct caught on camera the day before raises questions about exactly what happened in that pool.

Jason's father is considering a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Marines.

"We just want justice for Jason," says Tharp. "To get some kind of bill passed to where this won't happen to another family."

The Navy and Marines are investigating Jason's death and the conduct of the drill instructors who were supposed to protect him.

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