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Erroneous Enlistment

Former Guard Recruiter Says Superiors Refused To Take Forgery Claims Seriously

Frank Klein
SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE: Melanie Willens reported for out-processing from the Maryland National Guard at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

By Randy Leonard | Posted 1/31/2007

Last July 26, former Navy recruiter Melanie Willens came to Baltimore for an interview at the Maryland National Guard's Fifth Regiment Armory. Within the building's towering stone parapets, Willens was basically offered a recruiting position after a five-minute interview, she says. Two days later, she says, she officially signed up at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where her husband, Scott, works.

But Willens says that National Guard recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Richard Thomas, who handled her enlistment, had her sign incomplete papers ("Broken Whistle," Mobtown Beat, Dec. 27, 2006; "Hard Sell," Dec. 6, 2006).

The sections regarding her bonus were blank, but she trusted him to complete the forms as they had discussed, she says. She would be ranked 15P--one of just two Guard positions that are not deployable--and would be eligible for a $15,000 bonus, Willens says. She would be assigned to an avionics unit but not have to show up for drills. And she would not have to report for boot camp, which was crucial to her taking the position, she says, because she is a mother.

It all sounded great, she says, and Thomas told her he would have her completed paperwork in a few days. But when they met again, she says, Thomas said he had forgotten her completed packet. Willens says she again asked Thomas about boot camp, and recalls him saying, "`You will never see your unit.'"

Within a couple of weeks, Willens says she reported for duty at the recruiting office at the Edgewood Armory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, but she was still concerned about getting her hands on her enlistment documents. Thomas, she says, was not returning her phone calls.

Before she was even at Edgewood for a week, Willens says, co-workers told her that the rank 15P was not avionics, as Thomas had told her. It was operations, and a rank that is highly deployable under the National Guard's Global War on Terrorism initiative. Further, her noncommissioned officer-in-charge, Master Sgt. Elizabeth McClain, told Willens that she would have to report for drills with her unit, contrary to what Thomas had told her, she says.

Willens tried a number of times to get her hands on her documents. Somehow, she says, they had never been entered into the Guard's personnel electronic records management system. After a month, when her documents were still not showing up in the system, Willens says other recruiters told her that "there was something sketchy." Finally, Sgt. Maj. Jackie Sikes, an officer in the Maryland Guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion, drove to Thomas' office and picked them up, Willens says. They had been stashed away in Thomas' office, she says.

When she finally looked at her enlistment papers, Willens saw that the blank sections had now been filled in, with terms that were different than the ones she and Thomas had verbally agreed upon, making her ineligible for her bonus. In a number of places on the enlistment forms, the initials "MLW" or "MLK" are scrawled in straight letters, in a handwriting style unlike the one Willens used to sign her "MW" on the signature page.

Willens says she told McClain that the initials on the documents were not hers, and she recalls that McClain said to her, "`If you tell me that they are not, then something needs to be done about it.'"

So Willens set out to correct the terms of her agreement, and McClain relayed messages about the situation to officers in the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, including Capt. Mayb Sersland and Sgt. Maj. Sikes. Willens was called into a closed-door meeting at the Fifth Regiment Armory with McClain, Sersland, and Sikes, she says. She thought her superiors heard her concerns regarding her signing bonus and waiver for boot camp.

"I thought they were going to take care of it and get those promises in writing, which never happened," Willens says. Nor did McClain bring up the issue of the forged initials.

After a few weeks with no resolution to the problem, Willens says she sent an e-mail to Sikes and copied McClain, voicing her concern about the documents. She was called into a second meeting at the Fifth Regiment Armory, this time with Sersland and Lt. Col. Kevin Preston, who was then commander of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion.

"`What do you want?'" Willens says Preston asked her. "And the tone he said it in was kind of threatening."

Willens says she was given two options. She could be discharged for erroneous enlistment and then reapply for her job with an accurate contract. But Preston described filing for erroneous enlistment as "a financial box of worms that you wouldn't want to open," Willens recalls, because it would have meant paying back the salary she had collected from the National Guard for her past couple of months of work. Her other option was to submit a personnel action form to correct her title and bonus. Willens says she did not understand how this one form could fix the numerous discrepancies in her enlistment documents. She also did not like the fact that the incorrect, forged documents would remain in her file.

Willens says she did not understand why the Guard could not simply redraft her documents with the correct terms and have all the parties sign them again, which she says is standard practice in the military when there are paperwork errors or discrepancies.

"I don't want to have forged paperwork in my record," she recalls telling Preston. "Would you want that in your record?"

But she says Preston would not take her word for it that the initials on her enlistment documents were forged. He considered the discrepancy to be an administrative error, she says, and he pressed her to just file the personnel action form.

Lt. Wayde Minami, of the Maryland National Guard's public affairs office, says that Preston declines to comment for this story.

After the meeting, Willens says she expected her superiors to respond to her concerns and consider redrafting her original documents, as she requested. She also thought they would do something to address Thomas' actions. But in a Sept. 9 e-mail to Willens, Sersland told her that she had to choose between the two options they gave her; she also told her that disciplinary action taken against another recruiter was none of her business.

"To address your concern regarding your personal opinion on what should or should not be done to another recruiter on the force--It is not your concern," Sersland wrote. "It is not your place nor is it common practice to share or discuss disciplinary action taken on a senior [noncommissioned officer] with a junior NCO or with any one else for that matter. That is a command issue not a NCO issue. From this point on you will not discuses [sic] your opinion regarding this situation to soldiers out side your chain of command. That being limited to your leadership not your peers. . . . I do not expect to hear anymore about disciplinary action or any other action regarding other recruiters."

After that e-mail, Willens decided to leave the National Guard.

"At that point, I had just had enough," she says. She reported for out-processing at the Fifth Regiment Armory on Sept. 12. Willens says she turned in her government-issued phone and submitted a leave form. She says she declined to file a complaint with the Guard's inspector general's office. "I basically washed my hands," she says. "I never filed any reports."

Because of the problems with her paperwork, Willens says the Guard took two weeks after her original discharge date to actually discharge her. Before cashing her last paycheck, she says, she was assured by the National Guard Bureau in Virginia that she was entitled to her pay for those last two weeks and would not be requested to return it. They told her that the Maryland Guard could not backdate her discharge. However, soon after her discharge was complete, she started getting notifications that she owed the government money. Willens says that this time her husband inquired about the situation, and that she then received a letter from the Guard's inspector general's office telling her that it had conducted an investigation of her discharge. Since she had not performed any service to the National Guard for the two weeks it took them to process her discharge, the inspector general's letter said,the debt was valid. Still, she says, she heard nothing about an investigation of the alleged forgery of her documents.

According to Minami, the inspector general's office can neither confirm nor deny any investigation into Willens' documents or situation.

Due to an ongoing investigation launched after the Dec. 6, 2006, City Paper story about Thomas and allegations against him in his capacity as a National Guard recruiter, Thomas also was unable to comment for this story.

When asked if the investigation covered Willens and her allegations against Thomas and others, Minami says he can not offer specifics, noting only that the focus of the investigation is not narrow and that the National Guard is taking all allegations seriously.

Willens says she has not been contacted by the Guard in reference to these investigations.

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