Not even heroes are perfect and some of them are not even decent it seems. To all those who have served, thank you for your service, and thank you for not being like these men. Real heroes have integrity. This Master Sergeant and Veteran business owner had this coming. Content edits for clarity.
Zero to Sixty
“When this started all I was trying to do was get out of paying for something I didn’t need and never asked for. By the end, I was going for blood as someone else enacted their revenge.
This happened back in 2002 on Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. I was stationed down the way at 32nd Street Naval Base for my Military Occupation Specialty school and was a new Lance Corporal (E3) at the time. I had a 1994 Dodge Spirit with 180K miles or so and I’d just driven it across the country. I bought it a few days before leaving Kansas at an Auto auction. A couple of weeks into my school it died, at the gate, next to the sentry.
After an initial freak out that I was a suicide bomber and the subsequent search of me and my car, everyone calmed down and they helped push my car to the top of the hill so I could coast down the other side and into the auto repair shop parking lot which thankfully went without incident.
Before I went in I called my dad and then his cousin. My dad knows a ton about cars and his cousin is a mechanic with his own very successful shop (like a dozen work bays and they handle everything from regular cars to farm equipment to semis). I know a fair bit about cars on my own but he knows everything. Between us, we decided it looked like the distributor or the distributor cap was the issue. My dad’s cousin said it was a common issue on Spirits from this time and recommended I get it fixed here by a real mechanic. Now at this point, it’s important to note his shop did a very thorough once over for me after I bought the car and gave me good notes on the condition of the car in writing, from his shop.
I went into the shop and talked to the guy at the counter. They were not too busy and pulled it into a bay to run their diagnostics. They confirmed the issue was the distributor cap. Cool. I got the services agreement saying they would replace it and call me if they found anything else. I heard nothing until the end of the week when they called and said my car was ready. When I got there they presented me with a bill for like $1400!
Wow. Just wow. Now my heart had stopped beating and I said something about that being a lot for a distributor cap. The guy who owned the place (I found out he was a veteran from way back) broke off talking to a Master Sergeant (MSgt – E8) and came over to talk to me. He started telling me about how it was much worse than they originally thought and they ended up having to replace my radiator (plus hoses) and my timing belt and a head gasket.
I was still in shock and said something akin to, ‘The head gasket was fine two weeks ago and so was the radiator and the timing belt.’
He put his hand on my shoulder and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about because they’d been waiting to fail for a long time now.
I was beyond confused and said plainly, ‘That’s not possible. I bought it two weeks ago and…’
He cut me off and said I was sold a complete lemon and I should have had it checked. He said he felt bad for me and this should have cost over $2000 but he cut me a deal and he can work with me in an installment plan but will have to charge me interest. Now I was suspicious and started to get pissed.
I said, ‘The only repair I authorized was a distributor cap and they should have called me before doing anything else,’ and then I started to explain how I had the paperwork from the inspection I had done that said those other things were fine. I went to get it from the car and the MSgt grabbed me by the arm and started telling me I was being ungrateful and disrespectful to a respected mechanic and business owner and asked me if I was implying he was cheating me. Every time I tried to open my mouth he cut me off, telling the owner not to worry, ‘he’d make sure this young pup paid what was owed.’ He was even threatening to take me over to admin and have my pay docked. Now I was angry, but also a bit scared.
Another Marine intervened and commented that it seemed a little extreme and they should let me say my piece. I got permission to get into my car to get my maintenance history which included an oil change, the inspection documentation, and the original quote for the distributor cap work.
At this point, there was a crowd of customers and some other passers-by. The owner of the garage and MSgt were in full theater mode talking about how I was not appreciating the huge help they had been and I was obviously trying to get out of paying for work I asked for. Now I was mostly just pissed.
I came back with the papers and the MSgt immediately cut me off and told me to be careful how I talked to his friend. I asked the MSgt if he was going to let me speak or keep interrupting me while I was in a private conversation with a business owner. I asked him if he owned part of the shop (no) and asked why he was so interested in not hearing a Marine out. Then I got out the original statement of services and said, ‘The distributor cap is all I agreed to.’
Then I asked why he didn’t call me about these apparent issues. He said he called my barracks several times and left messages including ones telling me the car was undrivable until the repairs were made so he went with the lowest-cost option to get me back on the road. I replied, ‘That’s interesting, the only number I gave you was my cell phone and I don’t have any messages or even attempted calls until last evening when you left a message that my car was ready.’
I showed everyone my call history (including a Captain who was very interested and standing quietly by). The MSgt had backed off and the Capt was quietly talking to him off on the side. I could see them trying to figure out how they would worm their way out of this and get me to pay.
Captain Got Your Tongue?
The owner started backpedaling a bit, saying he was thinking of a different customer, but he had already made the replacement and had to charge me for the work. Then I pulled out the stuff from the inspection and it had some fun little statements in it. Statements like: Timing belt good, check again in 30K miles; radiator, appears to be recently replaced.; all hoses new in last 6 months. There was no mention of the head gasket, but there was a statement that there were no leaks in that area. Funny, since leaks were the reason he said he had to replace it. I said he could put all of my original stuff back on because all I would be paying for was the distributor cap work. He got red-faced and started demanding I pay for the labor and he couldn’t put things back on because they were too badly damaged in the removal process.
Now some old retired guy chimed in from the back and asked incredulously, ‘What kind of mechanic damages things when they take them apart?’
The owner dragged out my radiator and there was a giant hole in one side that looked like it was stabbed with a crowbar. Now a couple of other people (locals) were starting to question past situations where he had ‘helped them’ out with repairs they didn’t know they needed. The MSgt tried to walk off and a Colonel and a Sergeant Major in civilian attire posted him to the side for a later conversation.
The Capt pulled me aside and asked to see the info I had and to see my phone again. He stepped behind the counter to photocopy it all. He had a truly evil grin.
Turns out he was a prior Enlisted former infantry Marine who became an Officer after going back to college. He had suspected this shop of being crooked for a while but never had enough proof. He was on the commanding general’s staff and they were looking into complaints from permanent personnel and retirees in the area. The owner was sweating bullets now. I only paid for the distributor cap and got a statement that said my balance was zero so he couldn’t try anything in the future.
The Capt took me to dinner and got my info; basically a statement from me of what happened. After dinner, he directed me to his office while he typed up something for me to sign about the whole incident. I called Verizon to get them to fax over the incoming/outgoing calls from my number from the past week. He explained that the MSgt had been steering a lot of customers to his buddy and they suspected he was getting kickbacks.
The Capt and several others had been taking their cars there for months to try to catch the guy doing what he did to me. The MSgt sealed his fate when he started threatening to take my pay. They suspected he was getting kickbacks or favors in exchange for hooking up his buddy. Now he had the justification he needed to formally look into the MSgt. The Capt was thrilled and bought me a 6-pack for using up so much of my Friday evening.
I wasn’t around long enough to see the outcome but when I left there were auditors from base services going through the business with a fine tooth comb and it was a legal matter. Once something like that gets started it probably means a business and the owners will get kicked out of the on-base location (the base owns the building and the owner leases it). He and his business would also end up blacklisted as a place known for taking advantage of service members. Most commands give this out to people who check in so no one patronizes them.
It still boggles my mind that one veteran would try to use that status to take advantage of others. Or that a senior Marine would do that to other Marines. I know there are people out there like that but having the shared common background we do, I expect better.”