Dan Lamothe, Marine Corps Times
WASHINGTON -- A Marine veteran who made national news for standing guard outside a California school in uniform was accused Thursday of faking his military service, but denied he did so.
Craig Pusley appeared outside Hughson Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday in a desert camouflage uniform to help children feel safe following the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., he said. He added that he was inspired in part by another Marine veteran, Staff Sgt. Jordan Pritchard, who made headlines for similar actions at Gower Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn.
Media coverage of Pusley's actions reported that he is 28 years old and got out of the Corps as a sergeant after deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. In reality, Pusley graduated from boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, but was in the service less than a year and never made it past private first class, Marine officials said. He never deployed or made it through military occupational specialty school, leaving the Corps designated a "basic Marine."
Pusley told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview he never lied about his military service, blaming the first reporter who interviewed him, Nan Austin of The Modesto Bee, for getting the story wrong.
"There's a lot of fabrication to this story that didn't come out of my mouth," Pusley said. "All I know is that I talked to a Modesto Bee lady, and everything went crazy."
Photographs show him wearing the rank insignia of a sergeant, however. Asked about that, he said he didn't realize what was on the uniform and borrowed it from someone else. He added his old name tapes to the borrowed blouse, he said.
"I feel horrible about this," he said. "My intention was for the kids. I don't understand why everyone has to find a negative in every situation."
Pusley didn't have an explanation why Austin would have reported that he went to Iraq and Afghanistan, or why it was repeated in subsequent news coverage. However, he said he is "deeply sorry" if standing in front of the school in uniform offended anyone, and has written an email to the White House apologizing. He wasn't anticipating a blast of negativity after appearing at the school, he said.
"I cannot emphasize enough how sorry I am that all of this has happened," he said. "These were not my intentions. This was never supposed to happen."
Austin could not immediately be reached for comment, but The Modesto Bee's editor, Joe Kieta, said the newspaper stands by her work.
On Thursday, Pusley appeared in front of the school in Modesto again, this time out of uniform, after it was reported that Marine officials told Pritchard he was not authorized to wear the uniform in front of the school. Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, the top enlisted Marine, released a statement that he understands Marines' desires to protect children, but Marines should not be wearing the uniform outside of rules and regulations.
"This is not the right thing. Not the right time. And not the right place," Barrett said. "The uniform doesn't make the man. It's your character that defines you."
Pusley said he is 25 years old and dreamt of being a Marine as a child. He cracked his femur during boot camp, but made it to graduation, he said. Afterward, he was assigned to the Basic Marine Platoon at the recruit depot, where injured personnel can be assigned to provide time to heal.
Pusley was separated from the service after it was found he took unauthorized absence to attend a court hearing involving his ex-wife, he said. It's the Corps' version of being absent without leave, and can lead to be court-martialed. Pusley thought he had leave at the time, he said.
Marine officials said Pusley served from July 17, 2007, to April 8, 2008. His only listed duty station was MCRD San Diego.
Questions about Pusley's service mushroomed Thursday after the website Business Insider posted a report disclosing his military service. Other news outlets and blogs quickly followed.
Pusley said he believes he'd still be a Marine if he hadn't run into trouble with the court hearing, and still relies on the Corps' core values of honor, courage and commitment. He works now as a tattoo artist, he said.
Marine Corps Times