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When Marine Recruiters Go Way Beyond the Call

Ohanian Comment: Did you know you can't block calls from the U. S. Government? There is a second, follow-up column below the first one.

For mom Marcia Cobb and her teenage son Axel, the white letters USMC on their caller ID soon spelled, "Don't answer the phone!"

For mom Marcia Cobb and her teenage son Axel, the white letters USMC on their caller ID soon spelled, "Don't answer the phone!"

Marine recruiters began a relentless barrage of calls to Axel as soon as the mellow, compliant Sedro-Woolley High School grad had cut his 17th birthday cake. And soon it was nearly impossible to get the seekers of a few good men off the line.

With early and late calls ringing in their ears, Marcia tried using call blocking. And that's when she learned her first hard lesson. You can't block calls from the government, her server said. So, after pleas to "Please stop calling" went unanswered, the family's "do not answer" order ensued.

But warnings and liquid crystal lettering can fade. So, two weeks ago when Marcia was cooking dinner Axel goofed and answered the call. And, faster than you can say "semper fi," an odyssey kicked into action that illustrates just how desperate some of the recruiters we've read about really are to fill severely sagging quotas.

Let what we learned serve as a warning to other moms, dads and teens, the Cobbs now say. Even if your kids actually may want to join the military, if they hope to do it on their own terms, after a deep breath and due consideration, repeat these words after them: "No," "Not now" and "Back off!"

"I've been trained to be pretty friendly. I guess you might even say I'm kind of passive," Axel told me last week, just after his mother and older sister had tracked him to a Seattle testing center and sprung him on a ruse.

The next step of Axel's misadventure came when he heard about a cool "chin-ups" contest in Bellingham, where the prize was a free Xbox. The now 18-year-old Skagit Valley Community College student dragged his tail feathers home uncharacteristically late that night. And, in the morning, Marcia learned the Marines had hosted the event and "then had him out all night, drilling him to join."

A single mom with a meager income, Marcia raised her kids on the farm where, until recently, she grew salad greens for restaurants.

Axel's father, a Marine Corps vet who served in Vietnam, died when Axel was 4.

Clearly the recruiters knew all that and more.

"You don't want to be a burden to your mom," they told him. "Be a man." "Make your father proud." Never mind that, because of his own experience in the service, Marcia says enlistment for his son is the last thing Axel's dad would have wanted.

The next weekend, when Marcia went to Seattle for the Folklife Festival and Axel was home alone, two recruiters showed up at the door.

Axel repeated the family mantra, but he was feeling frazzled and worn down by then. The sergeant was friendly but, at the same time, aggressively insistent. This time, when Axel said, "Not interested," the sarge turned surly, snapping, "You're making a big (bleeping) mistake!"

Next thing Axel knew, the same sergeant and another recruiter showed up at the LaConner Brewing Co., the restaurant where Axel works. And before Axel, an older cousin and other co-workers knew or understood what was happening, Axel was whisked away in a car.

"They said we were going somewhere but I didn't know we were going all the way to Seattle," Axel said.

Just a few tests. And so many free opportunities, the recruiters told him.

He could pursue his love of chemistry. He could serve anywhere he chose and leave any time he wanted on an "apathy discharge" if he didn't like it. And he wouldn't have to go to Iraq if he didn't want to.

At about 3:30 in the morning, Alex was awakened in the motel and fed a little something. Twelve hours later, without further sleep or food, he had taken a battery of tests and signed a lot of papers he hadn't gotten a chance to read. "Just formalities," he was told. "Sign here. And here. Nothing to worry about."

By then Marcia had "freaked out."

She went to the Burlington recruiting center where the door was open but no one was home. So she grabbed all the cards and numbers she could find, including the address of the Seattle-area testing center.

Then, with her grown daughter in tow, she high-tailed it south, frantically phoning Axel whose cell phone had been confiscated "so he wouldn't be distracted during tests."

Axel's grandfather was in the hospital dying, she told the people at the desk. He needed to come home right away. She would have said just about anything.

But, even after being told her son would be brought right out, her daughter spied him being taken down a separate hall and into another room. So she dashed down the hall and grabbed him by the arm.

"They were telling me I needed to 'be a man' and stand up to my family," Axel said.

What he needed, it turned out, was a lawyer.

Five minutes and $250 after an attorney called the recruiters, Axel's signed papers and his cell phone were in the mail.

My request to speak with the sergeant who recruited Axel and with the Burlington office about recruitment procedures went unanswered.

And so should your phone, Marcia Cobb advised. Take your own sweet time. Keep your own counsel. And, if you see USMC on caller ID, remember what answering the call could mean.



Here's a second, follow-up column.

Zealous Marines get readers' attention

June 10, 2005


More than a few proud former Marines saw the actions of a couple of zealous Marine recruiters as falling just short of trying to shanghai a Sedro-Woolley teen into the corps.

A year of relentless phone calls followed by drop-in visits, culminating in a trip to Seattle for the boy who tried to say no was the topic of Wednesday's column. The recruiters' actions tarnish this otherwise sterling branch of service, scores of them said.

"I have to wonder about the difference between refusing to go with someone and having them bully you into it until you do," Geoff Howland wrote.

"Wasn't this akin to kidnapping?" asked Don Carter and at least two dozen more who said that constantly berating a kid to "be a man" and accusing him of being "a burden" to his low-income single mom smacked of Gitmo-style "psy-ops."

It wasn't kidnapping. The kid is 18 and admittedly passive, eager to please and reluctant to argue. And he wasn't taken against his will. He just didn't know where he was going, that he'd end up in a Seattle motel room overnight. Or face a barrage of tests with little sleep or food in a center where the military seemed too daunting to resist.

With feelings about military recruiters in our high schools running hot, many, Gregory Gadow, Ted Fitch and others included, called for action against the recruiters (who did not return requests for interviews), for going beyond the call to fill their quotas.

But just as many readers went on the attack against the boy, his family and this column, charging that even questioning the recruiters' tactics is sickeningly unpatriotic.

They accused the teen, his mother, and the other relatives and friends who witnessed pieces of Axel's experience of lying. They called the boy a wimp and worse. And, without knowing anything about her, they called his mother a control freak for tracking her boy to Seattle and, with her daughter's help, springing him from the testing center.

So far, nearly 140 readers have weighed in on the odyssey of Axel, at least a dozen of them derisively evoking a mother's "apron strings."

He had to run away from his own mother to join the Marines and so did his son, wrote Michael G. Jackson, Col., USMC (retired). Who signed off with: "If you can read this, thank a teacher. If it's in English, thank a U.S. Marine."

"How come thick-skulled liberals can't comprehend that rights and liberties they enjoy owe their origin and preservation to the military?" Michael Velikin asked.

"You extreme left-wingers who hate the military should remember you are able to spread your slime because our military served to protect that right," Don Clayton wrote.

Torkel Clark, USN (retired), blamed Axel's mom, Marcia, for NOT acting sooner, the moment her then-17-year-old started getting unwanted phone calls, saying the actions of the recruiters sound like "a Moonie cult from the '70s."

And, after 12 years as a U.S. Army recruiter, Lonnie Dotson offered these tips (assuming that the teen truly does not want to join):

"Call the recruiting station commander, the recruiters' commanding officer and/or the command sergeant major and complain.

Call or write your elected official -- the military will drop everything to respond.

Fail the written test on purpose.

Fail the physical, tell the recruiters you take mind-altering drugs, or that you're a convicted felon waiting for your parole to finish.

And lastly, call a reporter."

Navy veteran Lee R. Swanson countered, "My recruiters always told me the truth." And other vets insisted that such coercion simply doesn't happen. But an equal number said they'd heard of, or experienced, similar tactics and implausible blue-sky promises.

A veteran whose son is in the Air Force, Joe Teeples tells the bitter joke about the paratrooper told by his recruiter that he'd get a bonus plus two parachutes for every jump. On the way down, as the first and the second chutes don't open, the jumper says, "That recruiter probably lied about the trucks that were going to pick us up, too!"

"I had actually been accepted to a maritime academy and had won an ROTC scholarship," the Rev. James Olson said. "But this Marine recruiter wouldn't leave me alone. ... So I told the recruiter that I was gay and he shouted a bunch of expletives at me about wasting his time and leading him on. But he did stop calling! Funny thing is, it turns out I really was gay, but hadn't figured it out at the time."

Axel's former math teacher and coach at Cascade Middle School in Sedro-Woolley, Jim Morrell, is all for supporting the military. "Our guys in Iraq are doing a job that few want to do. They deserve our unwavering support. But lawlessness is not patriotism."

He was "appalled" at what happened and disputes the notion that his former student actually wanted to join the Marines if only his mother had let him.

"Axel's nature was one of a kind, gentle kid and about the last thing I could see him doing would be joining the Marines," Morrell said.

And, finally, for those who asked, Axel is not on his way to boot camp. He's home, attending Skagit Valley Community College, and still hoping to study chemistry -- in civilian clothes.

— Susan Paynter
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
2005-06-08
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/paynter/227497_paynter08.html


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