Staff Sgt. Nicholas Marsh sent a shirtless selfie to one female recruit, asked another for her prom photo, told a young recruiting assistant “her butt looked good in Air Force blue.”
Marsh friended them on Facebook, texted them and talked about partying.
Last week, Marsh, 31, faced a court martial in an Offutt Air Force Base courtroom over the controversial tactics he employed as an Air Force recruiter in Rochester, Minn., from 2010 to 2012.
He was charged with 18 counts of violating Air Force regulations, mostly involving alleged attempts to become overly friendly with young Air Force recruits, potential recruits and recruiting assistants. In one case, he acknowledged having an intimate, sexual relationship with a young female applicant.
Marsh's attorneys claimed that some of his actions helped him to talk with young recruits in an informal manner that would make the Air Force seem cool. They said recruiters had been trained to “love your people” — staying involved in recruits' lives in order to make the sale.
“That is all the rapport- building recruiters must do to keep in touch with high school students who are making life decisions,” said Capt. Matthew Deacon, one of the defense attorneys. “It was a sales pitch for high school students.”
But Air Force prosecutors said Marsh crossed the line.
“You've got to love your people,” said Capt. Brent Jones. “That doesn't mean going out on dates, that doesn't mean getting pictures.”
Last week's court martial came as the military is confronting a growing plague of sexual assault in its ranks, one that has caught the attention of Congress. Recruiters, whose job is to befriend young men and women and sell them on a hitch in the military, have been accused or convicted in cases in Alaska, Texas, Maryland, Oregon and Oklahoma.
In the most far-reaching of the scandals, at least 17 Air Force basic-training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, have been implicated in cases ranging from seeking improper relationships to rape.
In Marsh's case, he pleaded guilty to nine charges, including the sexual relationship with a would-be recruit. He also admitted storing sexually explicit images of himself and others on a government computer, and lying to investigators about touching recruits. He was acquitted on nine other charges.
The jury sentenced him to 21 days in jail, a reduction in rank and a bad-conduct discharge.
Testimony in the case portrayed Air Force recruiting as a pressure-packed job.
Andrew Cherkasky, one of Marsh's lawyers, said recruiters feel intense pressure to meet quotas. If a recruit signs up under the Delayed Entry Program but later drops out, it's a black mark on the recruiter's record.
So keeping in close and friendly touch with potential recruits is critical to making sure they don't change their minds.
Cherkasky compared selling the military to selling cars.
“Recruiting is an ugly place. It's something we don't like to talk about,” he said. “It's a sales job. It's no different than going to a Cadillac dealership.”
Prosecutors disagreed. Said Jones: “Car salesmen don't have the same requirements that Air Force recruiters do.”
Marsh was a member of the 343rd Recruiting Squadron, based at Offutt, which covers a territory stretching from Nebraska to North Dakota, and east to Michigan.
Senior Airman Zachary Chambers, who worked as a recruiting assistant in the Rochester office for two weeks in February 2012, testified that he and Marsh exchanged crude sexual comments about Kayla Williams, who was then waiting to enlist as part of the Air Force's Delayed Entry Program after she visited the office one day. They also looked for revealing photos on her Facebook page.
Williams — who is now Airman 1st Class Kayla Browne — said Marsh repeatedly pressured her to accept a Facebook “friend” request and sent her unsolicited text messages. He also sent her a shirtless photo of himself and asked her to send him a workout photo of herself.
“He said not to say anything, or he would get in trouble,” Browne said. “I ended up just ignoring it.”
But under questioning by Cherkasky, she acknowledged telling an earlier court proceeding that she had kept the photo in case she needed to “blackmail” Marsh.
Another of Marsh's recruits, Airman 1st Class Alissa Rogers, testified that he talked to her about posts on her Facebook page and told her about another female recruit he found attractive. He also asked her for a photo of her in her prom dress and suggested that they exchange “before” and “after” workout photos.
“I felt really uncomfortable,” Rogers said. “I always brought someone with me to meet him.”
Cherkasky said the Air Force has since set standards for how recruiters may use social media, but they weren't in place when Marsh worked as a recruiter. At the time, it wasn't made clear whether “friending” someone on Facebook or sending text messages violated military prohibitions against becoming personally involved with recruits.
“Some of what Sgt. Marsh did may not be professional, but that's not a question that's before you,” Cherkasky said in his closing statement to the jury. “If you don't like what he did but it's not illegal, you've got to find him not guilty.”
In fact, the military jury of seven men and one woman — split evenly between officers and enlisted airmen — acquitted him of charges that he had established wrongfully personal relationships.
Prosecutors asked the jury to sentence Marsh to five years in a military prison on the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
Cherkasky said he asked instead for a discharge from the Air Force, with no jail time, because of the hardship on Marsh's wife and four children, two of whom suffer from what he described as “significant disabilities.”