Six years ago, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jared Coons grappled with the grief of the death of his father. Mark Coons, 54, left part of his estate to his son, who in turn has taken that gift to help wounded troops, children and families.
Coons gave some $25,000 to the Marine Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment and Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. A $100,000 check covered two-thirds of the cost to build a playground for special-needs kids at the YMCA in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. An $85,000 donation benefitted local schools.
Smaller but still sizable donations funded outdoor camps and horse therapy programs.
The Marine Corps also recognized Coons for his charity. At a November 2013 ceremony at the Pentagon, it gave him the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award for his "extraordinary philanthropic contributions" of over $238,000 and noted his "generous and philanthropic character epitomizes the spirit of Bob Hope and was in keeping with the highest traditions" of the services.
But last year, Coons found himself in legal hot water. Why? He dug into his wallet several times in 2014 while serving as the logistics chief with a Japan-based Osprey squadron, VMM-262.
Tempo was high, he said, as the squadron was preparing to chop to another command for a shipboard deployment and prepping for training exercises in the region. Logistics are complicated business in the western Pacific, where units are further from military supply lines and stateside support.
Once, crunched for time, Coons spent about $1,400 to rent three large trash bins to haul away another unit's property left in a Futenma Marine Corps Air Station hangar on Okinawa. Another time, he paid $1,450 to fund commercial Internet services from a contingency supply vendor for an exercise deployment to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
The unit needed internet access so the Marines could track flight activities and do their daily work to meet the mission, he said. But there wasn't enough time to wait for the waiver from Washington, which would likely come too late. So he decided to cover the cost and file for reimbursement.
Coons, a 15-year veteran, said it wasn't the only times the squadron came up short with getting supplies and equipment the Marines needed.
"We had a very high mission tempo and we rarely received the support we needed," he said. Higher-ups "should have supported the squadron better than it did."
Coons contends he had the OK from his boss to get those mission-essential purchases. But he saw no reimbursement. Instead, the squadron, with a new commander in charge, in July 2015 ordered an investigation into his 2014 purchases. Coons was counseled for "unauthorized commitment of personal funds."
But it didn't end there. After a contingency mission to Nepal following an earthquake there, the squadron blamed Coons for several general-purpose tent poles in palletized GP tents, which he initially had signed out for but which later had missing parts. The Marine Corps valued those poles at $2,288 – his attorney says the parts are worth less than $100 — and it garnished his pay to cover that bill.
Jane Siegel, a retired colonel and Marine Corps judge advocate now in private practice near San Diego, said the Marine was "pressured" to sign a form that he'd agree to the garnishment from his military pay. He did it so he could take requested leave, which she said was subsequently wrongly cancelled and meant the loss of $1,147 airline ticket for his short trip to the U.S.
The money garnished was "20 times the amount he actually owed" for the missing poles, Siegel wrote in an appeal to Marine Corps Forces Pacific command in Hawaii to right the wrongs, order a new investigation and reimburse the gunnery sergeant for $6,276, in all.
"This is about fundamental fairness and admission that the red tape does not keep up with the mission tempo," she wrote. "When the mission absolutely, positively has to be done, call the Marines. This is what the gunny was trying to ensure."
Coons has few options left for redress. Last year he rotated back to the states and is stationed at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in California and he's spent this year trying to recoup the money for things he said the squadron needed overseas. Commanders up the chain agreed with the investigation, blaming Coons for requesting reimbursement.
He's hit dead ends with 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and III Marine Expeditionary Force's Inspector General, all which have rejected his appeals to reinvestigate. Most recently, the Defense Department's IG refused to reopen the case.
"We want someone to investigate. He wants a fair hearing – and he hasn't gotten one," Siegel said, calling Coons "an outstanding" Marine. "It's not so much about the money. To him, it's about the fact that he had to do these things. He had to outlay the money for the Internet, because he's just that kind of a Marine."