Army changes enlistment procedure

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 28, 2010

DALLAS (AP) — The Army is instituting a new procedure for checking the backgrounds of enlistees who claim to have a military record after a report that a reservist apparently faked a background as a Marine to enter the service.

Recruiters can no longer simply accept discharge papers as proof of service, Douglas Smith, public information officer for the Army recruiting command, told The Associated Press on Thursday. They now must also seek to verify the documents through a military database, he said.

The directive follows an AP story last Friday detailing how a Texas man apparently tricked the Army into allowing him to enter a reserve unit as a noncommissioned officer earlier this year.

Email newsletter signup

Records show that Jesse Bernard Johnston III, 26, was given the rank of sergeant even though he didn’t have a military background other than spending six weeks in a 12-week Marine officer candidate program for college students. Because Johnston didn’t complete the course, he never became a Marine.

Smith said the change in enlistment procedure, which went into effect Tuesday, means recruiters can’t accept an enlistee’s discharge paperwork, known in the military as a DD-214, as proof of military service without cross-checking it through the Defense Manpower Data Center.

Previously, he said, a ‘‘valid-looking’’ DD-214 would have been accepted without checking the database.

Smith declined to give a reason for the change or discuss the Johnston matter, which currently is under investigation by the Army.

Johnston joined the Army’s Corps Support Airplane Company based at the Fort Worth Naval Air Station in February. Since March, he has been stationed at Fort Rucker in Alabama, the primary training base for Army aviation. He has not responded to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

A spokeswoman at Fort Rucker said Thursday the ongoing investigation prevents her from commenting on Johnston’s status.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a former Marine who has closely followed the Johnston case, said the change in enlistment procedure confirms his fear that loopholes are allowing individuals to join the Army without being properly vetted.

‘‘It is unconscionable that U.S. Army policy has been to simply accept, rather than verify, discharge documents provided to recruiters,’’ Coffman, a Colorado Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

In a letter delivered to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Monday, Coffman said his office had obtained a copy of a phony DD-214 portraying Johnston as a veteran of Marine service in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the document may have been used when he enlisted in the Army Reserve.

Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and military awards historian, said a DD-214 — essentially a resume of military service generated for each veteran — is an easily forged document. He said he is aware of many instances in which such documents have been falsified or altered to obtain preferences in hiring as well as veterans benefits but none in which one was used for military enlistment.

‘‘With a history of how frequently these have been forged, it’s amazing that the military has not been checking them,’’ Sterner said.

Smith said the Army has always checked enlistees’ Social Security numbers against the manpower database. However, those checks seek only general information and are aimed mainly at making sure someone who professes to have no military service is telling the truth.

Citing the investigation, he declined to say whether Johnston’s Social Security number was checked and what, if anything, was discovered.

Questions about Johnston came to the Army’s attention when an officer became concerned over Johnston’s inability to answer questions about the Marine medals and ribbons he was wearing. The officer, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said he later learned from the Marines that Johnston never served. He said he then contacted military legal authorities.

Johnston’s ex-wife, also an Army reservist, obtained an annulment earlier this month on grounds of fraud after filing court papers that included an affidavit in which she said Johnston obtained his rank in the Army Reserve with phony documents detailing Marine service.

In her sworn statement, Melanie Rolfing, 24, said Johnston led her to believe he’d served with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star and two purple hearts. She also described how he would attend military functions wearing a Marine dress uniform. The annulment was granted after Johnston signed a document waiving his right to contest it.