For years, Jeff Seymour collected donations of reading materials and other items from area businesses to be shipped out of the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar to ship to U.S. troops overseas. Now, Seymour wants the Marines to explain to him why they unceremoniously dumped thousands of the donations into the Miramar Landfill.
A supervisor at the landfill says he witnessed a group of Marines dump as many as six pallets full of the donations—magazines, books, DVDs and hygiene products, packed in boxes plainly marked “For Our Troops in Iraq”—into the landfill last summer. A spokesperson for the air station confirmed the incident but provided multiple and at times conflicting explanations for why it happened.
“I'm sick about it,” says Seymour, a 41-year-old Carlsbad resident who launched the “Magazines and Movies for the Troops” campaign out of his home three years ago. “More than 37 businesses contributed to this cause, and they're still calling, asking if they can donate more stuff. When I tell them what happened, they can't believe it. When I was collecting these materials, I told my nephew, ‘You know, some kid in Iraq is going to go back to his rack tonight and have something really nice to read.' I'm just livid that this happened.”
It's unknown whether any of the materials Seymour collected over the years ever made it to the troops for whom they were intended. The Marine spokesperson says that at least some of the donations are still sitting in an air-station warehouse.
Seymour says he launched the donation drive both as a way to show the troops he appreciates their sacrifices and to “keep their minds engaged” with fresh reading material. He says he approached Marine officials with the idea and was told they would store any donations he collected on base and ship them overseas on cargo planes as space permitted. Seymour circulated flyers to promote the drive, and drove out to businesses across San Diego County, asking owners to contribute whatever magazines or books they had on hand. He says the generosity he experienced astounded him.
“Transworld Media donated thousands of magazines, most of them so new they still hadn't hit the stands yet,” he says. “They donated cases of beanies—like those skullcaps that kids wear—worth about $20 apiece. I asked them, ‘Do you think the troops will wear these?' And they replied, ‘Hey, do you know how cold it gets over there?' One woman from Rancho Santa Fe even donated five new DVD players and five new VHS players. I said, ‘This is too much,' and she said, ‘I'm old and I'm rich, and this is what I should be doing with my money.'”
Throughout the drive, Seymour claims, officials at the air station praised and encouraged his efforts. His trips back and forth to the base became so common that he would pull up to the gate and the guards would just wave him in, he says.
Seymour says that all changed in December, when he showed up at the base to drop off some last-minute items in the hopes they would make a flight in time for the Christmas holiday. He already delivered what he called his “big Christmas load” of contributions—some 185,000 items on four pallets—the day before. He noticed the pallets were missing and asked a solider about them.
“He said, ‘Oh, they shipped out already,'” Seymour says. “I said, ‘They did? I was just here yesterday—when did they ship out?' Then the soldier started saying, ‘There's been a mistake; there's been a mistake. You need to leave the base.' As I was driving away, it just hit me—I thought, ‘Oh my God, did they dump those donations?' So I called the landfill.”
Seymour knew the Miramar Landfill is located a short distance from the station—it's the Marines' primary dumping ground.
Kevin Keene, a disposal site supervisor at the landfill, says he happened to be standing next to the person who answered the phone when Seymour called. When he realized Seymour was asking if Marines had dumped “any unusual items,” he immediately knew what the call was about. Though he says he can't recall the exact date, he clearly remembers a group of Marines dumping five or six pallets of apparently brand-new magazines and other items “about six or eight months ago”—or sometime between June and August.
“You get a sense over the years about what ought to buried at the landfill,” Keene says. “Last week, for instance, we buried a whale—that's something you tend to remember. So this one day I noticed these Marines dumping these boxes of magazines, novels—I think I saw some DVD cases and personal hygiene products in there, too. I said to them casually, ‘Are you sure you want to be burying these things?' And they said, ‘Oh, yeah.'
“I just watched them doing this, case after case. The boxes had ‘For Our Troops in Iraq' written on the side. That's why I remember it.”
After learning of the dumping from Keene, Seymour says, he drove back to the air station and asked to speak to whoever was responsible for the dumping. That produced an on-base meeting the next day with Marine Sgt. Maj. Louis Espinal. Seymour says Espinal insisted the donations were tossed by mistake and pleaded with him not to go public with the information.
“Espinal kept saying, ‘If you go to the press, you're going to make the troops look bad,'” Seymour says. “I told him, ‘No, I'm not. I'm going to make you look bad.'”
Reached by phone on Friday, Espinal said, “There are three sides to every story” before transferring the call to Marines spokesperson Maj. Manuel Delarosa, who provided four of them.
“A lot of those materials were simply inappropriate to send to the troops,” Delarosa said. “The magazines were yellow and old and really belonged in a library archive rather than sent overseas.”
When asked why the magazines and books weren't returned to Seymour or dropped at a recycling center, Delarosa said the pallets were dumped in error, the result of a decision by an overeager soldier “of lower rank.” Asked to clarify whether the items were dumped because of their condition or by mistake, he asked if this reporter had spoken to Seymour and then said, “Did you know that Seymour had tried to solicit a flight on an F-18? I actually have it in writing that he specifically requested a flight on an F-18.”
Finally, he said the donations weren't shipped because there wasn't room on the cargo flights to Iraq.
“We appreciate donations from the public and encourage them,” he said. “But our first priority is to the war effort—shipments of troops, weapons, gear, supplies. I'm sure the public understands that.”
Seymour says Delarosa's F-18 remark stems from a mild attempt at humor on his part. He says he once scrawled on a note taped to one of the donation boxes, “How about a flight on an F-18, boys?”
“I've been up in a Leer jet, up in commercial aircraft and up in a helicopter,” he says. “Are they really saying I spent all this time trying to get a ride around the block? This was for the troops, boss. I did this for the boys overseas.”
Both Seymour and Keene, as well as a shipping supervisor from Transworld Media, reject the notion that the donated magazines were old.
“I saw those magazines—they looked pretty new to me,” Keene says.
Carl Bliss, an 85-year-old World War II veteran who donated numerous items to the drive, says news of the dumping was painful to hear.
“This is a different war,” Bliss says. “I spent three-and-a-half years in the service, two of those as a flight engineer hauling fuel to Patton as he made his run across France and Germany. This kind of thing should never have happened.”