Last Friday, on NRO’s new media blog, I wrote about a column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Susan Paynter that essentially accused Marine recruiters of attempting to kidnap a local 18-year-old named Axel Cobb and force him to join the Marines. The left-wing blog DailyKos had quickly picked up on the story and used it to bolster allegations that the Marines’ recruiting prospects look so dim that “They’ve resorted to kidnapping.”
The column was entirely one-sided and the story told primarily from the point of view of the 18-year-old’s mother. And there was nothing about the Marines who apparently tried to kidnap the kid.
“My request to speak with the sergeant who recruited Axel and with the Burlington office about recruitment procedures went unanswered,” Paynter wrote.
I called up the Marine recruiting office in Burlington (a suburb north of Seattle) on Thursday, and the Marine who answered the phone referred me to Sgt. John Chau, the media-affairs guy for the Seattle area. I called Chau and asked if he had spoken to Susan Paynter about the story. I was surprised by his answer:
Did I receive a call from that reporter? No. Did my Marines receive a call from that reporter? No. I can’t speculate on what she did, but I can say no query was received at this office.
I asked Sgt. Chau if it would be possible for me to speak with the Marines who recruited Axel. Sgt. Chau said he would arrange for me to speak with them on Monday. So Monday, three business days after beginning my inquiry, I spoke with Staff Sgt. Ron Marquez, the Marine who recruited Axel.
Two Different Accounts
Marquez’s account differs from Paynter’s in many key respects. Paynter tells the story of a kid bullied almost beyond endurance by sadistic Marines who drag him all over Washington State trying to disorient him and railroad him into joining the Corps. Marquez says he just saw a kid who really wanted to join the Marines but couldn’t overcome the objections of his family.
In Paynter’s version, for instance:
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.
According to Marquez:
We have systematic method of recruiting in place where we try to contact individuals who might be interested in the Marines typically when they become seniors. We looked at the call list and since the summer of 2003 when Axel became a senior, he’s been called 13 times. I contacted him on the 25th of last month [May]. Axel did not speak to anyone prior to that.
This averages to about one call every two months. For some, this might seem to be a “relentless barrage.” Eventually, despite his mother’s embargo on calls from the Marines, Axel answered the endlessly ringing phone. Even though Paynter skips past what happened next, Marquez filled in the details. After talking to Marquez on the phone, Axel visited his office for an appointment; according to Marquez:
We sat down and talked in further detail about what he wanted to do… he wanted to pursue school full-time because he was interested in chemistry. He wanted to get self-confidence and work on his leadership abilities. So I told him about my personal experience and… how he would get the opportunity to develop in those aspects. I believe we talked for two or three hours. And I asked him if he wanted to be a Marine, and then I stepped out to let him think about it, and I came back in and he said “Yeah, I wanna do this, I wanna be a Marine.” So I congratulated him, I said “You’re making a great decision”… We agreed to meet the next day.
The next day, Axel cancelled because, “His family was really against it,” Marquez said. “I asked if he would come back into my office so we could talk in person. He came back into my office. We starting talking about his goals again. Just from talking to him I knew that he wanted to join the Marine Corps.”
Marquez said his persistence in trying to recruit Axel stemmed from his conviction that Axel wanted to be a Marine–”he had been hollering ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be a Marine. This is awesome.’” Marquez thought that his family’s objections were the only thing holding him back. At their second meeting, Axel agreed to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery in Seattle. But then Axel told Marquez that he had another change of heart. According to Marquez:
He called up and he said, “You know, I just can’t do it. And this time his mom got on the phone and said “Our family’s not interested, don’t call here again.” I went to his house, on the weekend, so I could talk to his mom in person, with Axel there, because I knew he wanted to be a Marine.
Axel’s mother was not home. According to Paynter’s account, two Marines showed up at Axel’s house that day and started berating him. Paynter wrote that “This time, when Axel said, ‘Not interested,’ the sarge turned surly, snapping, ‘You’re making a big (bleeping) mistake!’
I asked Marquez if he remembered it that way. First, he said, he was the only one who went to the house that day to see Axel. Second, he said:
I said, if the only thing that’s holding you back is your family’s objection, you have to know that these opportunities only come along once in a lifetime, and if you do let them pass, I think you’re going to be making a mistake. I didn’t yell… I can’t recall whether or not I did [use an expletive]. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. But it wasn’t a yell or a command.
The next passage in Paynter’s column is critical. In it, she all but accuses the Marines of kidnapping (even though she backed away from that characterization in her follow-up column of reader reactions). Directly following the scene at the house, Paynter wrote the following:
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.
Marquez said this passage is flat wrong. First, Marquez insists he was the only Marine who came to Axel’s work that night. Second, and more importantly, Marquez said that his conversation with Axel at the house ended with Axel agreeing to come to Seattle:
… his father had been in Vietnam and died early because, his mom said, of the physical weardown of being a Marine. He asked me about my family and I said I don’t have a father either, I have a stepdad, and I know back in 1998 I was a high school senior when I made the decision [to become a Marine]. My mom wasn’t too happy about it either, but once she saw that this is what I really wanted to do she was supportive.
So then we agreed, he said “I want to do this.” So I said, “I’ll pick you up after work and take you to Seattle and we can do the screenings.”
Marquez maintains that, rather than being practically abducted, Axel came along with him back to the Burlington office. Once there, Axel joined several other applicants on a trip to Seattle to register, spend the night in a hotel, then wake up early the next day and complete the mental, moral and physical screenings.
Marquez stayed behind, but that night received a phone call from Axel’s mom. The next day, Marquez went to see Axel at the testing center.
When I got to Seattle I was told that his mother and sister and a whole bunch of people were there. I saw Axel and he said he was on his way to complete the tests, and I said, “Hey, your mom said there was a family emergency,” and then I turned around and he was gone.
Here’s how Paynter described what happened next: “Five minutes and $250 after an attorney called the recruiters, Axel’s signed papers and his cell phone were in the mail.”
Marquez disputed a point of fact:
I had a couple of lawyers call that afternoon. I called back and they said, “Axel Cobb’s no longer interested in joining the Marines.” But I still had his birth certificate, his Social Security card, and his cell phone, and I said, “Is there anyway I can get these back to Axel,” and the lawyer said, “You can mail them,” and I said, “That’s unacceptable. We can’t mail these things to just anyone.” So the lawyer brought Axel up to get his stuff, and I shook his hand and gave him his stuff and told him I would be here if he ever changed his mind.
Marines say Paynter never called
Marquez told me the story of a young, impressionable boy who seemed eager to tell people what they wanted to hear. In such a situation, one could draw the conclusion that the Marines recruited Axel too aggressively. Yet, if Axel kept telling Marquez at the end of every meeting that he wanted to join the Marines, then Marquez’s job was to follow up with the kid. And over the course of the recruitment, Axel went bowling with Marquez and his wife, and he and Marquez often talked about private family issues and personal experiences. This was not the hostile, bullying relationship that Paynter’s column led readers to believe it was.
Given the number of contradictions and important nuances Paynter missed by failing to get the Marine’s side of the story, one has to wonder how strenuous an effort Paynter made to bring that story to her readers. I grew curious when Sgt. Chau told me last Friday that Paynter had never contacted him. Since then, I have been in touch with Paynter via e-mail. She responded:
Let me simply explain that, as I said, I did attempt to reach the two recruiters involved in Axel Cobb’s situation and the supervisors at the Burlington office out of which they operate. In my judgment that was the best and most direct route from which to get their version of events, rather than getting a boilerplate statement from a spokesperson further up the chain. In two days they did not respond.
I wrote to her again, asking whom she tried to contact in the Marines. She replied, “I will continue to pursue, on my own, the military side I have already attempted to obtain. But I don’t feel any obligation to provide you with names of my sources.” Thinking she misunderstood, I again asked just for the names of the Marines she tried to contact, but that e-mail has gone unanswered.
Monday, I asked Sgt. Chau, Staff Sgt. Marquez, Staff Sgt. David J. Adams (who runs the Burlington office), and Lt. Col. Robert Coty (who oversees all these Marines) if Susan Paynter had ever tried to contact any of them. All of them told me no. Staff Sgt. Adams said, “I actually had a conversation with all my Marines on this specific subject, and I asked all my Marines, ‘Has anyone been contacted by this writer?’ and no one’s been contacted in either Bellingham or Burlington.”
Because Paynter will not say who she tried to contact, I have no way of figuring out how these Marines and Susan Paynter ended up contradicting each other on this matter. I do know, however, that after going through the proper channels I was able to get a side of the story in three business days that her readers are deprived of.
Going back and reading some of Susan Paynter’s old columns, I found one she wrote this past Memorial Day: a heartfelt tribute to local families of soldiers killed in battle. It’s hard to believe the same writer penned a piece so reverent to soldiers one week and one so unfair the next.
–Stephen Sprueill reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.