Trust Games: Deadly Oxymoron

“Trust games” have turned deadly in the U.S. Marine Corps—and the Corps may be partially to blame.

Trust games supposedly build trust among team members and build confidence in colleagues as well as the individual. Such qualities are of value on and off the battlefield. Similar games are played by children (C’mon, I’ll catch you!), team-building top executives (C’mon I’ll catch you) and others.
Typically they are not played with loaded weapons, unless you are the Marine Corps.

Late March 9 a world away at Combat Outpost Viking, in Iraq’s Anbar Province, Cpl. Mathew Nelson, 25, of the 2nd Tank Battalion was wielding his 9 mm. One by one he approached several Marines and a sailor, weapon pointed, commanding, “Do you trust me?”

The way the confidence-building game is sometimes played, the requestor asks the question, pointing the weapon at the respondent. The gun wielder turns the gun away or pulls the trigger of the unloaded weapon after the response to show he could be trusted.

That night Nelson approached Lance Cpl. Patrick Malone, 21, asking, “Do you trust me?” Malone responded and Nelson pulled the trigger shooting Malone through the forehead.The gun had been loaded. Apparently the practice of partially inserting a magazine and the faux chambering of a round leaves room for error. Nelson has been sentenced to eight years for involuntary manslaughter in Malone’s death.

According to some news sources, “Do you trust me” has been traced back to the late 1990s when a Marine being held outside a three-story window (in a trust game with a group of Marines) was dropped to his death. But the practice may track back farther, and the behavior may be taught and sanctioned by the Marine Corps itself.

It is called the Crucible, a two-plus day convention the Corps devised to up its boot camp ante. Over dramatized, it was the “culminating event” added at the end of recruit training during the 1990s. One Marine immediately pointed to the exercises designed to build teamwork and trust there as a possible source of these later trust-games-gone-bad. (Kids, don’t try these once you leave boot camp. Also, trust no one pointing a weapon at you.)

Is the Nelson-Malone tragedy a result of training? Boredom? Either way, one would think this exercise would lose its appeal.

While there are layered lessons here for many parties, our guess is such stunts (and worse) will continue.

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