View Full Version : Clifton Marine awaits court-martial verdict

06-05-07, 06:43 AM
Clifton Marine awaits court-martial verdict
Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Staff Sgt. Chris Cassese tolerated the 14-hour days, the Saturday shifts, the belittling lectures he says he received as a recruiter for the Marines in Clifton.

But his heavy schedule distressed his rambunctious 11-year-old son, Cameron, who began acting listless. The boy's grades plummeted. He was suspended from middle school.

Then, last October, the once happy-go-lucky child told his mother he wanted to kill himself. Chris knew he had to make a choice: He could be a recruiter or a father, but not both.

Chris chose his family, quitting the recruiting center the day he found out about Cameron. The Marines responded by court-martialing him for leaving his duties and willfully defying an officer. On Monday, he sat for the first day of his military trial in Parris Island, S.C. He is slated to learn his fate later today.

Chris could end his nearly 12-year Marine career in military jail.

"He might not be going home with us," said his wife, Janine Cassese, during a telephone interview outside court on Monday morning. "I'm trying not to cry. My palms are covered with marks from my fingernails digging into them."

Besides a yearlong jail term, Chris now faces a less-than-honorable discharge, loss of benefits and a record that would instantly alarm employers.

"It can have a drastic effect on employment," said Lt. Christopher Kannady, one of two lawyers appointed to represent Chris.

Maj. Kevin Norton, the commander in charge of recruiting in New Jersey, charged Chris with violating Article 90: disrespecting a superior commissioned officer. Capt. Don Caetano, a Marines spokesman for New Jersey, said he would not comment on the details of an ongoing investigation but said that officers can present charges against a Marine at their discretion.

Chris admits that he struggled to make his required quota of two enlistments a month, especially as his family problems worsened. But he and his lawyer contend that the court-martial has less to do with disobeying an order, and more with ongoing interpersonal conflicts in the Clifton office and Chris's struggle to stay within the Marines weight guidelines.

"This is what they give me in return for 12 years," said Chris, 35, at his bungalow in Lake Hopatcong. "I was loving life with the Marines, until I became a recruiter."

Recruiting is never easy. During war time, it becomes a Herculean task, experts say. The Army was forced to increase its enlistment bonuses after sagging numbers in 2004. It also greatly expanded its investment in TV commercials, and started pitching them toward parents. The percentage of fathers who approve of a son or daughter enlisting dropped from 77 percent in 2003 to 59 percent last August, according to the Department of Defense.

Those charged with selling the military lifestyle face immense pressure in overcoming that resistance, according to interviews with experts and local recruiters. It's especially challenging in the Marines, where about nine out of 10 candidates don't meet the strict physical and background requirements. The Northeast is a tough place for recruiters, with less than 14 percent of the nation's military recruits came from the region, Defense data shows.

"To be honest, recruiting is stressful. There's no way around it," said Sgt. Adolfo Asmar, 29, a recruiter from the Clifton Marines office.

Chris knows that his decision to quit -- despite the emergency that caused it -- positioned him for punishment. But a court-martial is an extreme response, with less than a handful of New Jersey recruiters annually undergoing them, said Caetano, the Marines spokesman. To Chris, it feels as though he is paying the price for the unforgiving nature of recruitment.

A military family

Chris, of Bergenfield, is the fifth Cassese to serve in the military. To qualify for the Marines, he had to lose 50 pounds to meet the strict physical fitness requirements. Once through boot camp, Chris thrived in his role as driver, rising six ranks in just two years. And the lifestyle suited him and Janine, his sweetheart from Bergenfield High School. They got to live in faraway places like Japan and enjoyed the closeness of an extended military family.

"There were a lot of people who took care of you," said Janine, 33, from Dumont.

In 2004, the family returned to North Jersey, in part to be closer to Chris's ailing father. Chris also wanted to become an officer, and recruiting seemed a surefire path. After attending six weeks of training, Chris reported to the Clifton office on Colfax Avenue in October 2004.

In the beginning, he took to the job. The small office won recruiting awards several times in a row for quickly making their monthly goals. Chris established ties with high schools in Paterson and other parts of south Passaic County. He says he avoided pressuring prospects, but sought to use his own experience to showcase the military's benefits.

"I never tried to manipulate people," Chris said. "But for some of those kids, it was the best thing that happened to them."

Chris Saldivia, 20, was one of them. After attending Eastern Christian High School in North Haledon, Saldivia enlisted in the Marines in 2005. Chris coached him along the way, and Saldivia worked by Chris's side for several weeks in the Clifton office. Saldivia admired his recruiting style.

"He was definitely good at his craft," said Saldivia, now a lance corporal.

Things started to sour in 2005. Supervisors penalized him when his weight ballooned roughly 40 pounds above Marines regulations – the result, he says, of the daily pressure that stole time from exercising. And tensions rose between Chris and his officemate, Sgt. Gustavo Gomez, after Gomez became Chris's boss.

Asmar, of the Clifton office, believed the friction arose from Gomez having to supervise someone with a longer tenure at the office than himself.

"I think that was a big mistake," he said.

To try and meet his recruiting goals, Chris worked on weekends. He was told to make 500 phone calls a week, and leave the office only after making three appointments for the next day. With shifts running past 10 p.m., he rarely saw his wife or sons. The oldest, Cameron, started bringing home failing report cards.

Over time, his monthly averages fell, according to copies of his reviews. In two years, Chris recruited 36 people. He should have enlisted 48.

Chris took a leave of absence in September when his father nearly died. Then, a month later, Chris was in a staff meeting when Janine called, hysterical, to say that Cameron had mentioned killing himself. Chris told Gomez he had enough. Gomez instructed him to get back to work. Chris picked up and left.

The event haunts him daily. "Maybe I jumped the gun. But I couldn't think straight," he said.

Punished over quotas?

With counseling and medication, Cameron improved, but Chris's situation worsened. He was sent to work cleaning a warehouse in the state recruiting headquarters in Colts Neck, a 140-mile commute that cost the family about $400 a month in gas. Their savings dwindled to about $200. And Chris saw even less of Cameron and his other son, Tyler, 10.

Then, out of the blue, Kannady called Chris to inform him that he was representing him in his court-martial case and suggested he plead guilty. But the Casseses -- shocked and angered about the charges -- decided to fight them.

Dr. David Segal, the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, thought the case sounded strange given the circumstances of Chris's dismissal. But the military takes its recruiting numbers seriously, he said, and any insubordination attempt would not be taken lightly.

"If they don't make their quotas, they will be punished by the system," Segal said.

For their case, Chris's superiors intended to argue that they did everything possible to help Chris with work and his family, Kannady said. In response, Kannady called five Marines, including a former boss at the recruiting station, along with Chris' wife and son to testify before a judge and a jury of three Marines. They intended to argue that Chris did not fully understand the ramifications of defying Gomez's orders, given his severe family problems.

On Saturday, the family traveled the 830 miles to South Carolina. Cameron spent Sunday throwing up from nervousness, Janine said. He insists on sleeping with his head on his father's chest. The thought of his father going to jail made Cameron cry.

If the Marines won't have him, Chris would consider becoming a police officer or a school sports coach. But any government agency would look suspiciously at a dishonorable discharge, Kannady said.

On Monday, the plaintiffs got through part of their testimony, with all of Chris' witnesses scheduled to speak today. The jury is expected to make its decision later today. All three jury members have children, the Casseses said, and they pray that these men will view their case sympathetically.

"If I had to change everything, I would do the same thing," said Chris, who was able, finally, to spend time playing baseball with his son while preparing for the case. "I just can't wait until I am a civilian again."


06-05-07, 07:23 AM
Superior: Marine didn't tell of son's suicide threat
Court-martial begins for Jersey recruiter accused of disobeying order
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- Maj. Kevin Norton, the officer responsible for all Marine recruiters in New Jersey, testified yesterday he knew one of his subordinates, Staff Sgt. Chris Cassese, wanted to quit recruiting duty because the long hours were creating "family troubles" for him.

But when the two met in October, Norton said, Cassese never told him the family troubles included a threat by Cassese's 10-year-old son, Cameron, to commit suicide.

"Anybody in their right mind whose son is suicidal would say something," Norton said. "He didn't tell me about it."

Exactly what was said at that meeting is of critical importance to Cassese's future. The 35-year-old Bergen County native is being court-martialed in a military courtroom on this swampy island this week for disobeying Norton's order to continue recruiting.

Cassese contends the 90-hour work weeks he needed to log to meet recruiting quotas contributed to his son's emotional distress. He says he was only trying to protect his family by asking to be allowed to leave recruiting duty in October -- 10 months before his assignment was scheduled to end.

If the jury of two enlisted Marines and one officer finds Cassese guilty of disobeying an order, he faces the possibility of a year in prison or a bad conduct discharge from the Marines.

At the October meeting, Cassese signed paperwork acknowledging he was willfully violating his superior officer's orders by quitting recruiting duty. But Norton testified had he known about the suicide threat, he never would have let things go that far.

"We would have stopped that piece of paper," said Norton, who said he only learned of the threat two months later, when Cassese responded to a negative performance review.

Cassese contends Norton and his other supervisors knew about the boy's suicide threat before he asked to be taken off recruiting duty.

In the court-martial, which began yesterday, the jury heard testimony from two of Cassese's other former supervisors, including retired Sgt. Major Ray Centeno, who said he knew about the boy's suicide threat much earlier than Norton.

Jurors also heard opening statements from the military prosecutor and Cassese's defense lawyers.

In his opening statement, Capt. Matt Elliott, the prosecutor, noted that Cassese, who had struggled at times during his recruiting career, had tried to quit recruiting duty at least three times.

"The defense will have you believe he quit out of duress," Elliott said. "You will hear that the accused had fears ... while they were real, they were not reasonable."

Capt. Joel Maxson, one of Cassese's defense lawyers, told the jury his client's fears for the safety of his son were real, as was the strain caused by the long hours he needed to work.

He said that Cassese, who grew up in Bergen County, had been a model Marine during his 12-year career.

He told the jury that Cassese had lived by the Marine credo: God, country, corps.

"But he had to figure out God, country, corps, and where does my family fit in," Maxson said.

Centeno, the former top enlisted man in the New Jersey recruiting district, said that he was aware Cassese had been having family troubles, including problems with his son.

"He told me his son was missing him a lot and had spoken about, contemplated, suicide," said Centeno. He couldn't remember when Cassese had told him this, only that it was before October, Centeno said.

Centeno said he had tried to talk Cassese out of quitting before.

"Every time I talked to him, he tied up his boot laces and went to work," Centeno said.

He said that while Cassese often failed to make his monthly quota of two recruits a month after his family troubles arose, he said he had gotten off to a strong start when he arrived in New Jersey in August 2004.

"His first 12 to 15 months with us, he did a bang-up job," Centeno said.

Norton, who took over as the commander in New Jersey in July 2005, said Cassese was struggling by the time he arrived. He said Cassese particularly struggled after being reassigned from Paterson to Bloomingdale in northern Passaic County.

"I think that once he was moved away from the flag pole with no one's thumb on him, he struggled," Norton said.

Both Centeno and Norton, a veteran of both the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Iraq war, acknowledged that recruiting duty puts a strain on families.

"I'm in the same boat," said Norton, who said he didn't believe Cassese's family was suffering from his absences any more than any other recruiter's family. "Nothing beyond being a Marine active-duty father who is not home as much as his wife and kids might want."

There are about 65 Marine recruiters in New Jersey.

Today, the jury will hear from Cassese's defense witnesses, including his son, his wife and a half-dozen other Marines, some who worked with him on recruiting duty.