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HOW HE SEES IT Confessions of a retired military 'felon'



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



I recently read with horror the story of the Ohio soldiers who have been court martialed and jailed for the criminal activity of "stealing" government property to complete their war time mission. Apparently they liberated some truck parts and used them to complete their mission. I don't get it.

You see, as a retired Army officer and Vietnam veteran, I don't understand what they have done wrong. Stealing from the government to complete a war time mission is a practice so old it probably dates back to George Washington's time. We need to immediately investigate the ownership of the boat Washington used to cross the Delaware River!

In defense of today's soldiers, I believe a little honesty on the part of my generation is needed. And it should start with my confessing to a crime which occurred in Vietnam in February, 1971. But let's continue with definitions first. Scrounging is and always has been a noble Army tradition. It is defined as the art of finding what you need to complete your mission by whatever method works. It is not a fine science, but it is a practice as old as the military itself.

The small five-man unit I had the privilege to command in 1971 had been dispatched to travel overland north to the DMZ and then West to the Laotian border. We were attached to the 101st Airborne Division as they supported the Vietnamese Army's final, and fatal, incursion into Laos. Attached, dispatched and supported are nice words that look good in reports, but sometimes reality and reports don't match.

Dodge truck

We had left DaNang in our beloved Korean War vintage Dodge truck, but it was monsoon season and the canvas on the back of the truck was missing. By definition, that makes for a very wet trip. As any Army person knows, when a piece of canvas is missing, you have two choices. You can requisition its replacement and remain wet; or you can scrounge one and continue on your mission. In fine Army tradition we found a piece of canvas and supporting bows which were then liberated from the top of a sailboat which truly had been stolen from the Navy compound several years earlier.

Somewhere between DaNang and the Laotian border we fell behind the convoy and found ourselves in deep sand. Yes, sand, like you would imagine in the Sahara desert. And our fully loaded Dodge truck simply ceased to function; the transfer case had failed. Now to mechanical types, this may not have seemed like a big deal. But to my drivers Jim, Dean and I, it was a big deal indeed. When you are on foreign soil in a war zone, surrounded by people who do not wish you well, and your mission changes from supporting someone to staying alive, a broken vehicle can command all of your attention.

Our unit of five souls, with less combined mechanical skills than your average knitting class, faced two choices: get the vehicle moving again or learn a foreign language quickly. They say God takes care of fools and drunks, and I have proof they are right.

By this time we were not only behind the invasion, we were behind the support unit behind the invasion! And then luck played its role, as it always must. We literally found an Army outpost in a place called Quang Tri from which everyone had left to support the invasion west of Khe Sahn.

In the middle of the compound we found a make-shift garage with shelves full of government parts. No people. Just parts and tools.

Continued on Page A11

Continued on Pagecated what clearly looked like a Dodge transfer case, which in today's market would have a value in the $2,000 range.

Over a case of Budweiser which we always carried for emergencies and driven by the midnight oil, we were able to strip all the bad parts off our truck and replace them with shiny new ones from that lonely abandoned garage. I will never forget that night of personal and mechanical discovery.

In the morning we were once again on the way to complete our mission. But in reflection, I now see that I, as the officer in charge, have clearly been guilty of a felony for all these years. We stole those parts! I need to find Donald Rumsfeld's phone number so that I can turn myself in.

Amusing? Maybe. But in reality, the story is tragic. For that was then, and this is now. Donald Rumsfeld says you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want. And I say, how dare you, sir. Placing volunteer soldiers in jail for doing their job is a national disgrace. It is time we all -- everyone one of us -- start asking the hard questions. Like who is minding the store? Free those soldiers and let them return to civilian life with the benefits they have earned.

One last thought. The Army certainly has the right to fire any soldier who does not perform up to their expectations. So do it. But good luck finding a replacement. Maybe you could & quot;requisition & quot; a whole new generation of bean counters. But you won't get your mission done. History is on my side.

X Judge William O'Neill of South Russell sits on Ohio's 11th District Court of Appeals.




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