Only 10 military service members get personal Christmas Day phone calls from President Barack Obama. Last month, Coast Guard Petty Officer Golda Payne learned she would be one of them.
Payne, a 25-year-old Tampa native stationed in Kuwait, couldn't wait. She researched the Obama family. She planned to keep things "light," maybe ask about the family dog and tell him about her bulldog puppy. She gave an interview to the Coast Guard newspaper.
But Christmas came, and Obama never called. Two days later, Payne said her officers told her this was why: The White House had run a criminal background check on her, saw a 2006 drunken driving conviction and didn't want to risk negative publicity.
Payne said she was hurt and disappointed. The drunken driving arrest in Brevard County — her only criminal charge, according to state records — was a turning point that led her to join the military in the first place.
"The Coast Guard has been hands down the best thing that has ever happened to me," Payne told the Tampa Bay Times in an email. "It provided me structure and discipline when I needed it most. I was beaten down badly after my DUI."
Neither the White House nor the Coast Guard would confirm or deny the details of the decision.
The Coast Guard's Lt. Scott Carr said, "We got notified she wasn't going to get the call." But as for why, he said, "It's not for us to comment on."
A White House spokeswoman said there may be a "multitude" of reasons why the office doesn't follow up on a phone call. She wouldn't say whether a drunken driving charge is one of them.
Payne, who attended Sickles High School in Tampa and Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey, was raised by her aunt, Golda Graves, of Tampa.
She did not do well in high school, her aunt said, and she struggled to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
"She just had some issues from her childhood," Graves said.
In 2006, Payne finished EMT school at Palm Beach Community College and was trying to get into fire school when she and a friend took a road trip to Cocoa Beach. She said she had two beers, but her friends had more. So she decided to drive the 15 minutes back to their condo.
A police officer pulled her over, and Payne failed a Breathalyzer test. She ended up pleading no contest to the driving under the influence charge. (She was not cited for underage drinking.)
Payne's drivers license was suspended for six months. She was fined $250, records show.
Payne said in an email that she was worried about her job prospects with a recent DUI on her record. So she started thinking about the military. "I wanted to join the military, do something for my country and prove that I did have good moral character," she said.
She joined the Coast Guard Reserve and was based in Clearwater.
Payne graduated from a fire school program, but said departments turned her down because of the DUI.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard started sending her to new places.
She went to Haiti after the earthquake. Last April she was deployed to Kuwait, where she serves as a machinery technician.
Her officers nominated her to get one of the president's phone calls. She said she was told she got the nod because of her work performance.
After she said her bosses told her why Obama never called, she Skyped her aunt.
"She was devastated," Graves said. "She was in tears."
Payne said she worries that the DUI conviction she got as a 20-year-old will keep haunting her.
"I was hurt, angry, devastated. I felt like I was not 'worthy' to speak to the president because of a mistake that I made five years ago," she said.
But, she added, "I learned from the mistake that I made. I joined the military and I love it. I can truly say that my DUI played a big part in making me the person that I am today."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.