When Marine recruiters go way beyond the call
By SUSAN PAYNTER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST
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.