HUGHSON — The Marine Corps veteran who achieved national fame this week for guarding Hughson Elementary School had a far less distinguished service career than he has claimed in public, records obtained Thursday show.
Hughson Unified Superintendent Brian Beck said he asked Craig D. Pusley to leave the school grounds about 10 a.m. Thursday after checking with regional Marine authorities on Pusley's service. He said Pusley did not argue and left.
Beck stressed that Pusley stayed outside the school, except for checking in at the office. "He certainly seemed legit," Beck said. "It's just so disheartening."
Records provided by the Marine Corps show Pusley served nine months before being discharged as a private first class in April 2008. The personnel records further indicate that he never served in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else overseas.
The records contradict Pusley's claims Wednesday to The Modesto Bee and other media that he is a 28-year-old sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, in Baghdad and Ramadi, and one tour in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Pusley told the Army Times on Thursday that he feels "horrible about this."
"I cannot emphasize how sorry I am that all of this has happened," he told the military newspaper. "These were not my intentions. This was never supposed to happen."
He told the Times he is 25, that he borrowed the sergeant's uniform and that he dreamed of being a Marine as a youngster. He lives in Hughson with his wife and 3-year-old son; she is expecting their second child in two weeks.
Pusley did not return multiple messages from The Bee left Thursday, but did tell other media that he had been misquoted.
"The Modesto Bee correctly quoted what Mr. Pusley told reporter Nan Austin in a Wednesday interview. We stand by the story," said Editor Joe Kieta.
Marine Corps Capt. Kendra N. Motz said Thursday that "the record speaks for itself." Motz declined to say whether Pusley potentially faces legal proceedings for his exaggerated service claims. False or exaggerated military claims are not uncommon. As a general rule, though, officials appear to primarily focus on those who seek to profit from those claims or exploit others.
Beck said it was the lies, not Pusley's lack of long and illustrious service, that forced him to reassess the Hughson father's volunteer vigil. "Maybe he just got caught up in it all," Beck said.
At the school, Principal Laura Fong said she had not found the words to tell her kindergarten through third-grade pupils that the hometown hero they cheered through the morning salute to the flag Thursday had not told the truth. The school had a minimum day and starts winter break today.
Fong said she believes Pusley meant well. "I think it came from a place of good," she said.
Pusley, who said he lives around the corner from the school, drew a public spotlight Wednesday when he appeared in his camouflage fatigues at the campus. He explained at the time that he had read on Facebook a plea for veterans to help protect schools in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week. Twenty students and six adults were shot and killed at the school by a mentally ill 20-year-old, who then took his own life.
"I just want to have a word to this community that I stand between them and any danger," Pusley originally told The Bee.
And that is what, from all reports, he did. "I still think that, as a human being, he was out there for the good," school receptionist Angelee Martin said.
Pusley returned to the school Thursday morning, after his story had gone viral nationwide. He was dressed in what he called "Texas business" wear -- jeans, jacket and tie. He was warmly received by pupils, staff, community members and retired military personnel.
Beck said an aide to Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock came to the school to see Pusley, "ready to stand behind him" in any repercussions over attire, only to learn Pusley had left under a cloud.
Pusley said Wednesday night that he was not seeking attention and regretted if he had violated any military rules regarding his uniform.
"You don't need a uniform to do this," he said. Coming to stand for the safety of children, he said, is everyone's job.
Pusley said Marine veteran Jason Pritchard, who had likewise shown up to protect a school in Tennessee, warned him that using the camouflage fatigues instead of a dress uniform could subject him to investigation.
Motz, the Marine Corps representative, disputed Pusley's characterization.
"There is currently no formal investigation (of Pritchard)," she said. "At no point was he asked to stop standing in protection of his son's school, only that he not wear his uniform in doing so."