Opening the door to those unfit to serve

A few days after he arrived at boot camp here, Joshua Fry no longer wanted to be a Marine.

He was confused by the orders drill instructors shouted at him. He was caught stealing peanut butter from the chow hall. He urinated in his canteen. He talked back to the drill instructors. He refused to shave.

Finally, he set out toward the main gate as if to head home. He was blocked, but now he had the chance to tell his superiors a secret: He was autistic. Fry figured this admission would persuade the Marines to let him return to the group home in Irvine for disturbed young adults where he was living when he enlisted.

Instead, he was sent back to Platoon 1021, Company B. The drill instructors became more helpful, and in April 2008 he finished the grueling 11-week regimen and was sent to Camp Pendleton for infantry training.

Within weeks he was under arrest for desertion and possession of child pornography.

Documents in Fry's court-martial case detail a troubled upbringing and a Marine career that was both improbable and misbegotten.

But far from being a routine instance of a young man unable to adjust to military life, the Fry case has exposed an awkward issue for the Marines and other military services: Recruiters sometimes take ethical shortcuts to make their quotas at a time when Americans have tired of the nation's wars and finding recruits is difficult.

According to court documents, Fry's recruiter knew he was autistic. The Marine Corps is investigating the recruiter's conduct.

Compared with the large number of enlistees each year, the number of allegations against recruiters is small and the number substantiated even smaller. But a report by the State Department, prompted by concerns in Congress, concluded that even a small number of misconduct cases "fosters distrust of the military [and] such distrust makes recruiting for all even more difficult."

The Marine Corps has the highest percentage of substantiated misconduct claims. In the last three fiscal years, 265 Marine recruiters have been relieved of duty for misconduct, most commonly for hiding negative background factors.

Autism is not among the conditions that automatically bar a would-be recruit. But, if Navy doctors had known of the diagnosis, Fry would have been evaluated more skeptically during the pre-boot-camp medical examination and most likely would have been rejected.

In 2006, a psychiatrist for the Orange County mental health agency wrote that, although Fry "is high-functioning for a child with autism, he exhibits the typical characteristics of anxiety, impulsive behavior, distractibility, very poor social skills and an inability to read social cues and interact appropriately in social situations."

Fry, now 21, has already spent a year in the brig at Camp Pendleton. His next hearing is July 27. He also faces a third charge added later: fraudulent enlistment. The charge is based on Fry not telling his recruiter he had received counseling for an addiction to child pornography. Under military rules, he is not allowed to talk to the media.

His grandmother, Mary Beth Fry of Newport Beach, said Fry is not doing well.

"He's had a lot of problems being locked up," she said. "He's on psychotropic drugs. He's been diagnosed as bipolar and is having trouble holding it together."

When he was 18, his grandmother went to court to become Fry's legal conservator. Under the conservatorship, Fry is prohibited from signing contracts without his grandmother's approval.

Mary Beth Fry said that she told the recruiter her grandson needed her approval to enlist, but that he ignored her.

A 35-page motion filed by Fry's lawyer details a troubled childhood: parents who were drug addicts, an evaluation of autism at age 8, multiple stays in foster homes, behavior problems at Newport Harbor High School, an arrest for stealing iPods and a court-ordered stay at a facility for psychologically disturbed youth that lasted 15 months.

Mary Beth Fry said she was unaware that the recruiter contacted her grandson while he was living in the Irvine group home. "A lot of things went on that I didn't know about when he was in Irvine," she said. He enlisted in January 2008.

Fry's lawyer, Michael Studenka, sought to have the charges dismissed and Fry discharged on the grounds that he should not have been allowed to enlist because he cannot legally sign contracts. A Marine judge rejected that motion.

Studenka declined to discuss the case.

But Kevin McDermott, an Orange County lawyer who is familiar with Fry's case and has represented military clients who felt misled by their recruiters, said potential enlistees who would have been rejected a few years ago are now allowed to enlist, as recruiters struggle to fill their quotas.

"These recruiters are under enormous pressure," he said.

According to the Pentagon, there were 2,426 claims of recruiter misconduct in fiscal 2007, when 22,218 recruiters brought 319,229 recruits into the all-volunteer services. Of the claims, 593 were substantiated. The Marine Corps, with 43,562 recruits and 2,783 recruiters, had 211 claims of recruiter misconduct, with 118 substantiated. The Marines were the only service where more than half of claims were substantiated.

The Marines declined to discuss the Fry case but, in a statement, said, "We want only those who are qualified: morally, mentally and physically. Any recruiter who circumvents our layers of screening to place an unqualified applicant into our ranks only does detriment to the quality of our force."

Mary Beth Fry said she hopes a plea bargain can be worked out that will bring her grandson home soon.

"I just want him out of the Marine Corps so we can get him the care he needs," she said.


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World