Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Court Martial

Well, not quite, because I was saved, but damn near. For a court martial to happen there is a long, involved procedure, from the investigation to the actual hearing and judgement. And before it all happens someone has to read you your rights, usually your commanding officer. And not your immediate one, but usually the senior commander of the organizational unit.

In my case, being in the 1155th Technical Operations Group at McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento California. It was depot maintenance and repair facility for the worldwide operations of the 1035th Technical Operations Command. At the time we were the only Command outside the Strategic Air Command groups with a high priority and classification in the Air Force.

What made us so important? We monitored the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (test ban) Treaty. In the early 1960's the US and then Soviet Union (unofficially) agreed to each having systems capable of monitoring any nuclear explosion (test) anywhere in the world. We each had almost parallel systems of types and locations. It's now done by satellites, but it was then all done with ground systems with airborne and naval systems for live monitoring.

The whole thing required top secret clearances from the lowest level airman to the highest general. I had one as well as many other young enlistees. I served my four years and left, but not without some drama.

When I was on a temporary duty assignment at our headquarters southwest of Washington D.C., I made an off-hand comment to a senior sargent - I was a first year sargent - and he took offense. When I got back to my normal work station two weeks later after being in Germany, I was greeted with a notice by my supervisor that the sargent had filed a complaint demanding I be investigated and court martialed.

Well, the first thing that happens is someone reads you your rights. In my case our group commander, a two-star general stood about a foot from me, looked at me, and read me my legal rights. And then explained the proceedure for a court martial. After a pause, and before excusing me (you just can't leave a room, you have to be ordered or instructed to leave), he wished me good luck.

After I left the room, I talked with the first sargent, a unit's highest ranking non-commissioned officer (NCO) who handles all affairs with NCO's, who also wished me luck. I had a good company first sargent and commander, they knew the situation and the people, and both enjoyed and liked the young NCO's. But they had to follow the rules and intent of Headquarters (where that sargent was stationed and I made the comment), but they didn't have to mean it.

Anyway, after an investigation, there is a hearing. The unit I worked in was technical engineering where my immediate supervisor, a career Captain was an asshole. He didn't like young NCO's. but the office commander was a Lt. Colonel who had served two tours in Vietnam. After reading the charges and the initial investigator's report, he was simply astounded.

The key here is that you, the charged, have a choice. You can admit guilt and accept an adminstrative reprimand or face a general court martial, investigation, hearing and all, and the odds aren't on your side. In almost every case, some charges are found to sustain disciplinary action with the either a demotion or discharge. In short, if you force the issue to the court martial, they will find you guilty.

I was faced with the choice of the lessor or, as they say, bet the farm. I talked with friends, one of whom had accepted an administrative reprimand and regretted it. Everyone, except the Captain, recommended I make them prove their case. I told my commanding officer of my decision. He called me into his office before the hearing. We had an interesting conversation, and all he asked for was honesty and after heariing my side of the story, he told me he would represent me at the hearing.

It was interesting having a senior commanding officer as your representative. He made it clear to the hearing officials the charges weren't worth more than an apology, and that wasn't from me either, but the board. He said he had found a lot worse offenses in Vietnam, almost all of whom were excused as incidental, and not investigated, let alone requiring disciplinary action. And he told the board he was willing to defend me throughout the whole proceedure.

This was my saving grace. Having a respected Lt. Colonel on your side against the establishment changed the dynamics. They couldn't just accept the complaintant's story, since it was just between the two of us, as fact. And they had to face if the charges were really that serious. It was 1972. I was young with an excellent record, no bad or black marks. And while all my supervisors said I did have an "attitude problem" they all said my work was outstanding.

At the time I worked with a variety of engineers. My job was being a member of a team building and testing new equipment, having spent 2+ years repairing the equipment. I had to turn engineering plans into prototype models, test them, and then develop and write instructions and manuals for the installation and maintenance of the new equipment. I also went on world tours installing the new equipment, like headquarters where I made the comment.

In the end, the board dismissed the charges. They didn't have the interest to fight the Lt. Colonel. But they also didn't want me to get away without some disciplinary action, and the most they could impose was removal from consideration for promotion in the next cycle. That's the key, if you lose, you can lose everything, but if you, you win everything and keep them from doing anything against you.

So, that was it. All that was left was the notice about my promotion, or being removed from consideration. I was called into a room with three senior NCO's. They explained the decision and handed me a document to sign accepting it. I read it and asked if it was for only the next cycle. "Yes.", they said. "And I'd be eligible for the one after that?", I asked. "Yes.", they said. I quickly signed the document.

They were kinda' stunned. I smiled and started to leave. They stopped me, and said, "You signed it very quickly. You're not worried about losing eligibility for promotion?" I replied, "No, because I didn't qualify. I will make the cycle after that and be promoted." You could almost feel the sudden feeling of stupidity. I asked, "You didn't with check the promotion board?" "No.", they said. "Well, I did.", I replied.

So I left. And the rest of the story?

Well, I did make the promotion cycle after that and was offered my fourth stripe if I re-enlisted. I didn't, and as luck would have it, I took my discharge. The Air Force even forgave me the 2 year inactive duty required with enlistments, and gave me my full discharge. And so on January 2, 1973, we parted company. I walked out of McClellan AFB and never looked back.

And even 36 years later, there hasn't been anything I've done that's been that tough. And I tell people after a two-star general reads you your rights, everthing else isn't all that bad.

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