December 19, 2012

Marine back in front of Hughson school Thursday, in shirt and tie

Marine Sgt. Craig Pusley returned to watch over Hughson Elementary School on Thursday morning, dressed not in fatigues but a shirt and tie so as not to run afoul of military regulations.

9:15 a.m. UPDATE: Marine Sgt. Craig Pusley returned to watch over Hughson Elementary School on Thursday morning, dressed not in fatigues but a shirt and tie so as not to run afoul of military regulations.

He was joined at the flag-raising ceremony by students, teachers, parents and retired members of the military.

Pusley, who lives around the corner from the campus, voluntarily went to the school Wednesday in an effort to reassure students and the community in the wake of last week's horrific events at an elementary school in Connecticut. Twenty students and seven adults were shot and killed by a mentally ill 20-year-old, who then took his own life.

Pusley said he was not seeking attention and regretted if he had violated any military rules regarding his uniform. Today he wore "Texas business" wear -- jeans, jacket and tie.

"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.

Marine Sgt. Craig Pusley was on duty Wednesday. Desert camo fatigues, knees slightly bent, the young father stood a self-imposed watch at Hughson Elementary School.

One man. No rifle. No pay. No breaks.

“When I enlisted, I swore to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” said Pusley, 28. He served two tours in Iraq, in Baghdad and Ramadi, and one in the Helmand province of Afghanistan before leaving active duty.

“Schools are kind of against the rules over there,” he said. Over there, he stood guard for 24-hour stretches with a “battle buddy.” The pair spelled each other through short breaks for bare necessities.

He has no battle buddy in Hughson. But after reading a Facebook post urging soldiers be posted at every school in the wake of last week’s tragic shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, he decided to take action on his own.

To the surprise of his very pregnant wife, Kristina, Pusley got up early Wednesday and dressed in uniform. He walked out of the house and around the corner to the kindergarten-through-third-grade school at 7:30 a.m.

“I was just praying and hoping the principal would say yes,” he said.

Principal Laura Fong did. “I said, ‘Absolutely!’ In light of all that’s happened, this is especially the time to make sure we help students and families feel safe,” she said.

Kristina Pusley, expecting in two weeks’ time, brought future Hughson Elementary kindergartner Canon, 3, to visit daddy midmorning. “I’m proud of him for it,” she said.

From 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Pusley stood his post, greeting kids as they arrived and saluting the flag with the kindergarten class of Annette Diliberto.

“I just want to have a word to this community that I stand between them and any danger,” he said. Asked about his lack of firepower, Pusley said, “I don’t need to be armed to do this. I don’t have a fear in the world that if someone came here, I’d have the strength and the ability to protect them.”

But by Wednesday night, he was facing a different type of threat.

By wearing those fatigues instead of a dress uniform in public, the Marine reservist said, he violated Marine Corps protocol and could face up to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. Worst of all for a proud veteran and provider for a growing family, “dishonorable” could be stamped across his honorable discharge.

He said he was warned by phone by former Marine Jordan Pritchard, who stood a similar guard earlier this week at Gower Elementary in Nashville, Tenn. Pritchard was notified by the Marine Corps that he was the subject of a formal investigation, Pusley said.

“I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have worn it. I apologize to my community, my nation and the Marine Corps,” Pusley said, adding that he’s written a letter of apology to President Barack Obama, as well.

Pusley is a stay-at-home dad right now. The family is living on savings and his reserve pay, enjoying being safe and together after his years away.

Later Wednesday night, Pusley said he’ll be back at Hughson Elementary today — though not in uniform — because he promised the children he will be. He’s asking parents to stand with him, and a number already have agreed to do so.

Many of Hughson’s residents drove by the school Wednesday, and some stopped to shake his hand. A television crew filmed him. Facebook spread the word.

School receptionist Angelee Martin said she spent the morning leaking tears every time she looked out at Pusley. “Everybody feels so safe with him there. He just impresses me so much,” Martin said.

Parent Danielle Batteate said having a Marine on campus was wonderful. “Somebody, out of their own heart, is actually protecting our children,” she said.

Other parents posted the news on Facebook, bringing well-wishers who offered the Marine cup after cup of coffee. But too much coffee would mean leaving his post before school let out, so a growing collection of cups sat cooling around the flag pole.

Sgt. Pusley was on duty.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.

Marine protects Hughson school.

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