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The Mission

Marine Staff Sgt. Jason Baxley gladly would have faced hostile fire in Iraq. It's chasing down Howard County high school students that tests his courage

By Christian Davenport
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page W12

The new star of Columbia's Marine recruiting station pulls his sports car to the curb just past 7:30 a.m. It's a drizzly, gray spring day, and Staff Sgt. Jason Baxley is not in a particularly good mood, despite his stellar performance over the past four weeks.

During March, Baxley somehow landed five recruits for the United States Marine Corps -- an extraordinary feat of perseverance, charm and luck that not even he can fully explain. If he had recruited just two, he would have met the monthly minimum expected of every Marine recruiter. Three would have been solid work, especially with Marines dying in Iraq. Four would have been outstanding, given his territory, an affluent Maryland suburb where the overwhelming majority of teenagers go to college without giving the military a thought. But five has transformed Baxley from a nervous novice with just six months of recruiting experience under his belt into a hero who helped his station meet its quota of new Marines.

Staff Sgt. Jason Baxley with recruit Travis Mitchell at the Marine Corps office in Columbia. (Photograph by Chris Hartlove)

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While it feels great to have won a plaque commemorating his "Big Nickel," Baxley knows everyone will be watching to see whether he can deliver again. Today is the beginning of a new month -- April 1. With the turn of a calendar page, he is starting from scratch in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. And he's not looking forward to what lies ahead.

Baxley gets out of his car and opens the door to the recruiting station, which, at first glance, could pass for a war room. Maps of the Baltimore-Washington region cover one of the walls; key targets are marked with little flags and past successes with pushpins. The flags represent area high schools, and the pushpins indicate the home addresses of recent recruits.

Baxley wishes this were a real battle bunker. He desperately wanted to go to Iraq last year instead of being assigned to recruiting duty. Part of him would rather be shot at by Iraqi insurgents than shot down by some snotty teenager. While his fellow Marines are risking their lives, the only wounds he has to worry about are those to his pride.

Baxley greets his boss, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Gowl, who is as upbeat as Baxley is down. Gowl's job is to pump up his recruiters for the month ahead. The station's mission, again, is eight. Gowl divvies it up this way: The station's two new recruiters, fresh out of the San Diego school where the Marines teach their own to become salesmen, will be responsible for only one apiece. That leaves three each for Baxley and his colleague, Staff Sgt. Donald Stepney.

Baxley nods his head as he gets his orders, but he knows three could be tough. In January, he signed up just one. In February, he struggled to land two. Now it's April, the month when most kids receive acceptance letters from college, his biggest competitor. Even worse: Iraq is out of control, and the newspapers are filled with grisly pictures of wounded and dying Marines. Today television is airing shocking images of charred corpses of American contractors hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

This, Baxley thinks, could be a very long month.

Gowl pats him on the back and gives him an encouraging smile. "Just do the exact same thing you did last month," he says, "and you'll be all right."

THE REGISTRAR AT ATHOLTON HIGH SCHOOL in Columbia shakes her head as she prints out the student's transcript.

"You might want to worry about him," she says, handing Baxley the paper. "He's skating on thin ice."

Baxley glances at the transcript. It's worse than he thought. There are two failing grades. The student, a senior, is supposed to become a Marine after he graduates. He enlisted in the fall and has signed a waiver allowing Baxley to check his grades. But if he fails, he doesn't graduate. If he doesn't graduate, he can't join the Corps -- and Baxley loses a recruit. It's not even noon, and Baxley is looking at the prospect of losing someone who has already joined. This is not how he wants to start the month.

He grimaces as he scans the transcript again. "Is there any way I can go yell at him?" he asks.

The student is in class, the registrar says, and can't be pulled out. "You might want to talk to his guidance counselor," she suggests, pointing to a nearby office.

"He's got to understand, he needs that diploma," Baxley tells the guidance counselor, who nods his head sympathetically. "I can get drastic. I don't know what you'll let me do, but I'll sit in class with him."

That strikes the counselor as a bit extreme. But he concedes that someone needs to stay on top of the kid and is glad Baxley can fill that role. Students are away for spring break next week, the counselor says. When they get back, he'll talk to the kid as well.

Baxley isn't going to wait that long. "I'm going to call him tonight," he declares. "If he has to sit in my office to do his homework, he will."

The words come out slowly, rounded by Baxley's South Carolina drawl and softened by his Southern manners. He doesn't speak often, or for long, but when he does, he's direct and candid, the result of the instruction drilled into him by his mother and the Marine Corps. At 27, Jason Baxley still has the broad shoulders and short, wide neck that made him a defensive lineman in high school. Since joining the Marines nine years ago, he's had a constant crew cut that keeps his hair prickly short on the sides, with just enough of a wisp on top to reveal its orange tint. An oversize watch is strapped to one of his thick wrists.

He hands the counselor his business card and asks him to stay in touch. As Baxley walks out of the school, past the puzzled stares of students surprised to see a Marine in his dress uniform, a gangly teenager peeks his head out of a classroom.

"Hey, what's up, man?" the young man says. It's the student whose grades he came to check.

"You know your report card is coming out tomorrow?" Baxley demands.

The boy, tall and awkward in a red Marine Corps T-shirt, says nothing as he steps into the hallway.

"What's your mom's work number? I'm going to call her before she calls me," Baxley says. She has already called him once, just a couple of days ago, worrying about her son's grades.

"What's going on?" Baxley says, jotting down her number. "You're no dummy."

"I know. I know," the boy says, staring at his feet. "I'm on it. It's just -- it's just senioritis."

Baxley repeats the threat that he's been making all morning: If the kid doesn't shape up, he'll have to do his homework in Baxley's office. Or worse: "I'll sit in class with you."

At this the boy looks up from his shoelaces, stares at Baxley and then at the class, which is proceeding without him. The thought seems unbearable, a uniformed Marine baby-sitting him in school. He nods, shuffles his feet and mumbles again -- "I know. I know."

BY MIDAFTERNOON, Baxley has returned to his office near the Mall in Columbia and turns his attention to a list of prospects he calls his "players." This month they include: a senior at Wilde Lake High School whose mother won't sign the release form that all 17-year-olds must get from their parents; another 17-year-old with reluctant parents who has promised to enlist on his 18th birthday, when he won't need their consent; a track star whose high school coach has been telling her that "she's too good for the Marine Corps" and should go to college instead; and a student at Catonsville Community College who has failed the Marines entrance exam but is about to take it again.

Before Baxley can call any of them, however, a flustered 20-year-old with acne on his cheeks and neck and a peach-fuzz mustache walks into the office and announces that he has heard some disturbing news: Recruits are allowed just one phone call at boot camp, to tell their parents they've arrived safely.

"So that means, like, no cell phones?" he says incredulously.

Of course, there are no cell phones, Baxley says. This is Marine Corps boot camp, the toughest training in the world. He uses a tone that indicates they've been over this territory before, but his answer seems to raise more questions about boot camp in the frazzled boy's mind.

"Are there, like, days off, or is it seven days a week?" the recruit asks, fidgeting anxiously. He's just a few weeks from his "ship date," the day he'll go to Parris Island, S.C., and start to become a Marine, and he's clearly getting cold feet. Technically, he can still change his mind. The Marines can't force him to go to boot camp. But dropping out this late is something the Marines strongly discourage, and there is considerable pressure on the recruiters to keep it from happening. Which is why Baxley seems to spend almost as much time making sure recruits stay in as he does wooing new prospects.

"Oh, this changes a lot of stuff," the recruit says, when Baxley reminds him that boot camp is 13 weeks straight. No days off. But then you graduate and become a Marine, and all that pain and suffering is worth it, Baxley says.

A band of other recruits waltzes into the office, which is often an after-school hangout for those waiting to ship off to Parris Island. In front of the other recruits, the panicky young man straightens his spine and tries to erase the fear from his face. Baxley doesn't take his eyes off him.

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