I have a relative who is autistic. He has a mild case and yet, I don't think he is capable of being in any military.
This recruiter picked him up at a group home for mentally ill people. That should have been a red flag. Are recruiters that desperate that an autistic guy is good to go ?
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — At age 8, Josh Fry was diagnosed with autism.
The disorder got the Hollywood treatment in “Rain Man,” where actor Dustin Hoffman portrays a highly functioning autistic who counts toothpicks and wants to go to Kmart. But in real life, the neurological developmental disorder manifests a wide range of impairments, often requiring extensive therapy and counseling to build social, speech and behavioral skills.
When Fry turned 18 in 2006, he was deemed unable to make major decisions for himself by the California courts. The federal government approved his disability and made Social Security payments to help provide for his care.
But in 2008, no one blinked when a Marine recruiter picked up Fry from a group home for mentally ill adults and took him to the Costa Mesa recruiting substation. Nine days later, Fry was standing on the yellow footprints.
On July 20, 2009 — after 18 months in the Corps, 12 of them confined in the brig — Pvt. Josh Fry was court-martialed for fraudulent enlistment, unauthorized absence and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to time served plus three years probation, tossed from the Corps with a bad-conduct discharge and ordered to register as a sex offender.
Left unexplained in the whole mess, however, is how a man such as Fry could be recruited into the Marine Corps in the first place, make it through boot camp and get sent on to infantry training during war time.
‘A wild animal’
Fry, 21, a young man with pale skin and light brown hair cropped into a high-and-tight, was born in a Southern California desert community, the son of a crack-addicted prostitute and an alcoholic thief, according to courtroom testimony. They began living on the streets of Los Angeles and, for a short time, lived with Fry’s paternal grandmother, Mary Beth Fry, in upscale Newport Beach.
But when the couple kept using drugs, she threw them out, and they returned to the streets in Hollywood, with little Josh in tow.
When Josh was 1, his parents were arrested for shoplifting, and “he was put into foster care,” Mary Beth Fry told the military court during a 4-hour hearing. He was taken in by his mother’s sister, but after one of his cousins was taken away for being abused, his grandmother stepped in to care for him.
That was the first time Orange County social services assessed Josh, she testified.
“He could not talk,” Mary Beth Fry told the court. “He had never been potty trained. He would never give eye contact.”
Josh Fry flapped his hands when he ran.
“He was really different,” she added. “I told my friends, it was like having a wild animal in my house.”
Mary Beth Fry entered her grandson into an interdiction program at the local preschool, where they found his IQ at age 4 to be 70 and noted that he acted as if he were 2 years old.
“Josh had extreme behavior problems,” she testified. He bit and hit other children. She moved him to a more intensive program in nearby Irvine, where he received speech therapy and attended school through fifth grade. He began weekly therapy sessions through the county’s mental health services that continued to age 18.
Josh Fry was 8 years old when a neurologist at the University of California-Irvine diagnosed him with autism, Mary Beth Fry testified. Specialized therapies, special education and schooling, along with various medications to stabilize his moods, helped him function in local public schools.
According to several medical experts who evaluated him, and therapists who counseled him during his formative years, Fry was developmentally behind his peers and psychologically impaired by autism.
When he was expelled from high school after an arrest for theft, Mary Beth Fry sent him to the Devereux Cleo Wallace Facility, a Colorado lockdown unit that treats and schools children and adolescents suffering from mental health and behavioral problems. He completed his high school education there and returned in October 2007 to California.
In 2000, Fry began meeting with Julie Elliott Schuck, a licensed psychologist in Huntington Beach. Fry attended her group social skills training until 2006, Schuck told the court, and suffered from hyperactivity, impulsivity and other mental disorders. His repetitive behaviors included preoccupations with police, firefighters and the military.
Cases of autism spectrum disorders are rare in the military, although accession policies don’t state outright that autism is a bar to military service. In 2006, Army officials rescinded the contract of an 18-year-old autistic recruit who enlisted but hadn’t shipped to basic training.
There’s no known cure for autism, said Doris Trauner, an expert in autism and a neurosciences professor at the University of California-San Diego.
Entering the Corps
On Jan. 4, 2008, according to court documents, Fry contacted a Marine recruiter he met in 2006 at a Young Marines function at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach. The next day, Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Teson picked up Fry from a group home in Irvine for mentally ill adults — where Fry lived after returning from Colorado — and took him to the Costa Mesa recruiting substation.
“During this meeting, Teson assisted Fry [to] fill out initial screening paperwork,” Fry’s attorneys wrote in an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the case. “Fry informed Teson that he was autistic and had asthma. He also told Teson of his criminal record and that Mary Beth [Fry] had a limited conservatorship over him.”
Fry’s lawyers allege that the recruiter told him what to say to make it through the screening.
“While assisting Fry in filling out the paperwork, Teson instructed Fry that ‘if we don’t put in yes,’ then they won’t know.”
Testifying during Fry’s Article 32 hearing, Teson said he didn’t think the conservatorship affected Fry’s ability to enlist, and he didn’t ask anyone in his chain of command about it.
On Jan. 7, Fry went to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Los Angeles, where he took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery — he scored “well,” said one Marine official — and had an initial physical exam. On Jan. 14, he shipped to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego for boot camp.
Problems surfaced soon after Fry began recruit training four days later.
Like many recruits, he had trouble understanding orders and responding quickly enough for the drill instructors. Several times he “informed his staff that he did not want to be a Marine. Each time, he was told that was not an option,” his attorneys wrote in the court motion.
On Feb. 5, Fry was counseled for missing training because he was assigned to light duty. The next day, things got worse. He was caught stealing packets of peanut butter from the chow hall. He “intentionally urinated in his own canteen,” according to court documents. He was disrespectful to his senior DI.
The next day, an unshaven Fry refused his evening meal, drawing the ire of the “heavy” DI, a staff sergeant who told him to leave the chow hall. After initially refusing, Fry did leave and kept going, leaving the designated recruit area before the DIs confronted him.
That night, according to the document, Fry “informed his senior drill instructor and staff that he had been diagnosed with autism and asthma.” The DIs sent him to medical, where he repeated the claim to the battalion corpsman, a petty officer first class, who told him that if true, he “had fraudulently enlisted.”
The corpsman called Mary Beth Fry, who confirmed the diagnoses. She contacted Teson and later told attorneys that she thought her grandson would be discharged and sent home. But Josh Fry remained at boot camp and graduated with Platoon 1021 on April 11, 2008.
“Incredibly,” his attorneys wrote, “Fry never had a single negative formal counseling entry after the day he reported being autistic to his chain of command and medical staff.”
But trouble followed him anyway, as he went on to his next assignment, at School of Infantry-West. On May 26, about a month into his infantry training, Fry was sitting in his squad bay when one of the Marines in his training unit picked up Fry’s cell phone and discovered pornographic images on it.
“I don’t allow others to use the phone,” Fry responded, when questioned by military judge Col. John Ewers during his court-martial. The other Marine “turned it into the duty.”
During his time at SOI, Fry downloaded dozens of pornographic images of prepubescent children, some with explicit sexual conduct, onto two cell phones and two laptop computers. His first unauthorized absence came on July 17, when Fry spent the night sleeping on a bench in Camp Pendleton’s Mainside area before taking a bus back to the school.
By the time Fry went UA the second time, on July 18, the command had found and confiscated his replacement cell phone and two laptops he kept in his wall locker.
“They knew I had a problem with child pornography,” Fry told the judge.
Fry was gone for more than a week. Then, on July 26, he rode a local bus to Camp Pendleton’s Cristianitos gate and walked to Camp Talega a few miles away.
“I was going up there to collect my thoughts, sir,” he told the judge. “I still hadn’t decided I was going to turn myself in, sir.”
But a local guard saw him on a bench and took him back to SOI.
“Was it your intention to turn yourself in to those guys?” the judge asked.
“No, sir,” Fry replied.
When officials learned through the investigation and discovery process that Fry never disclosed that he had received psychiatric care for a compulsion to view child porn, the Corps added a charge of fraudulent enlistment, not for the autism, but for the undisclosed treatment.
Who’s to blame?
The Corps says a mental health examination conducted in 2008 by a Navy clinical psychologist, Capt. Bruce T. Reed, determined that Fry has some mood and personality disorders, but concluded he does not suffer from autism.
“There was no evidence of cognitive or behavioral disorder,” said Maj. Christopher Logan, a Marine Corps Recruit Depot and Western Recruiting Region spokesman, told Marine Corps Times, basing the position on Reed’s evaluation. “He does not suffer from a severe mental disease or defect.”
Marine officials charged Fry “because there was sufficient evidence that violations of the UCMJ had been committed. As he was on active duty at the time the violations took place, he was subject to the authority” of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, spokesman for Marine Corps Installations-West at Camp Pendleton.
Officials have ordered investigations into Fry’s recruitment.
Fry’s grandmother and defense attorneys — led by Michael Studenka, a Newport Beach attorney and Marine reservist — refused to discuss the case or the investigation.
The Corps’ prosecution of Fry has raised eyebrows among some experts familiar with the legal issues surrounding the case. Kevin B. McDermott, a defense attorney in Irvine, called it “a travesty.”
“That kid is clearly autistic and diagnosed as such,” McDermott said.
In the military courtroom, Fry pleaded guilty to two counts of unauthorized absence, four counts of possessing child pornography and one count of fraudulent enlistment.
Ewers, the military judge, accepted his pleas and levied a sentence. It was tempered by a plea deal, offered by the regional commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, that credited the year Fry spent confined in the base brig and suspended the remaining three years of the jail sentence.
McDermott questioned Fry’s mental capacity to agree to a plea deal and wondered about the legality of the enlistment contract. The limited conservatorship means someone “can’t sell you insurance. You can’t buy a car,” he said.
Before accepting the guilty pleas, Ewers went through each charge with Fry, asking him questions about going UA and the pornography, which Fry detailed when asked. Ewers asked a few questions about what Fry knew and told his recruiter during the accession process, including the intensive counseling and therapies he received in Colorado.
“Did you discuss with Gunnery Sergeant Teson your counseling?” Ewers asked.
“No, sir,” Fry replied.
“Did you understand that the questions you were being asked at the MEPS ... contemplated you would disclose that information?” Ewers saked.
“Yes,” Fry said.
“Did you knowingly conceal that information?” Ewers asked.
“Yes, sir,” Fry replied.
“You wanted to enlist?” the judge asked.
“Yes, sir,” Fry said.
Mary Beth Fry told the court she’s lined up two residency programs geared to autistic adults and those with sexual behavior problems.
“Josh has committed a crime, but he also has a severe mental problem of autism, for which he needs special help,” she said. “Hopefully this will turn the problem around.”
Josh Fry didn’t testify at the half-day court-martial. One of his defense attorneys read an unsworn statement from Fry that spoke about his problems and troubled upbringing, and apologized for his actions.
“I’ve been a troublemaker my whole life,” his attorney read. “I’ve never socialized with the normal kids at school. I was a loner. I never had friends in my neighborhood.
“I feel bad for what I did,” he continued, reading how Fry didn’t want to be among the 80 percent of convicts who recommit crimes. “I plan to learn to stop my urges ... the first step in my recovery.
“I need help with those things; hopefully I can do these things on my own some day,” he continued. “I am sorry and remorseful for everything that I have done.”
Schuck, Fry’s former counselor, said his improvement over the years is a sign that he could respond to treatment. “He has changed from ... low functioning in the beginning to high function,” she testified by telephone. She said Josh’s social relations have “significantly improved.”
She said further treatment, including treatment to deal with a fixation on child pornography, would help him.
“It’s definitely critical that he be in a structured, intense treatment environment.”
It’s unclear whether any additional fallout will come from the Fry case.
Teson, Fry’s recruiter, and the entire accession process are currently under investigation.
Recruiting officials also are looking at more “tools” to help recruiters select and screen potential recruits to avoid such situations in the future, Logan said.
“We are looking at everything,” he said. “Of course, everybody is more aware of the situation. We’ve raised awareness at this point.”
Just what those additional measures would be isn’t clear. Prospective recruits fill out questionnaires to disclose their personal, criminal and medical histories as part of the military’s screening process.
But some recruiters don’t verify the information or can’t access some records, such as medical information or sealed court documents.
“That disclosure is important,” Logan said, adding that he didn’t know what Fry’s recruiter did or didn’t do. “That’s maybe what the investigation will find out. The recruiter didn’t have all the information we have now.”
Also unclear is whether Lehnert has the power, or the intent, to offer any clemency for Fry, based on the outcome of that investigation. It’s possible that the case could be over turned upon appeal.
What is certain, however, is that MCRD San Diego will soon receive another crop of recruits. Whether another Private Fry is among them is anyone’s guess.
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