SAY IT ISN'T SO
06 March 2001

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

The word in Porkapolis USA is that senior Marine officers have been doing what many Army, Navy and Air Force generals and admirals have done since those milicrats slapped on their stars -- cooked the books on a new weapons system.

The program: the USMC V-22 Osprey helicopter.

There's no arguing that our nation's premier 911 force needs to replace its worn-out helicopter fleet. Or that for the past two decades, top Marine brass have fought for the Osprey -- a reputedly magic bird that's supposed to cruise like an airplane and hover like a helicopter -- with the same intensity the Corps has always slugged it out on land, sea and air since that proud institution was formed. Nor is there any question of late about the fate of that hybrid aircraft: If it doesn't get its act together quick smart, it'll be flying though heavy flak fired by a turned-off Congress and a shoot-down-that-loser Bush/Cheney White House.

So despite all the Osprey crashes -- which since 1991 have killed 30 Marines -- countless megabytes of U.S. Marine, Boeing Aircraft and Bell Helicopter hype have been devoted to making the troubled aircraft perform on paper even if it's not flying so well in the sky. After all, we're looking at a $40 billion chunk of military appropriations. And even inside the capital beltway, this is serious money.

Last month, the Corps fired V-22 Squadron test-unit skipper Lt. Col. Odin Leberman for ordering his Marines to falsify records. The case was open-and-shut. A brave Marine who wanted to stop the crashing and dying recorded Leberman saying to make that sucker look good. Our patriot then shotgunned the audiotape to the Pentagon inspector general and to the media.

But unless their name is Oliver North, Marine lieutenant colonels have no power in the big scheme of military maneuvers and would never try to save a troubled program on their own hook. So who on high told Leberman to make it happen? And if the colonel, who's looking at hard slammer-time, gets immunity, will he sing or will he take the rap to save others up the chain of command? Now comes the fallout as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's inspectors examine two senior Marine generals' computers, dig through thousands of documents and interview hundreds of Marines and civilian technicians.

The Marine Corps always seemed to be above the pork and politics and into doing the right thing. You know: hard soldiering, harder fighting, and duty, honor and country.

My belief system would have trouble handling our Marines being into the same slippery stuff as the rest of the Pentagon services, i.e., ask not what your country can do for your service, but lie and cheat in order to steal a bigger bite of the defense buck than rival services.

I grew up in a World War II Marine town -- Santa Monica, Calif. Young, brave Marines heading off to the Pacific were my role models. Because of them, I tried to enlist in the Corps in 1943, '44 and '45, always to be told, "Come back next year, kid, when you're a little bigger." In 1945, when I was 14, the Merchant Marines decided I was big enough -- and I missed my chance to join my dream team.

Both in the Army and since, I've always had a special connection with the Marines. My boyhood awe was reinforced with the Corps' magnificent performance in Korea, where when my U.S. Army was retreating, the Marines were attacking. During the Vietnam War, I sent my paratroopers to the Marines to learn how to fight Charlie instead of staying with Army units who were still fighting Adolf and Tojo. More recently, while Clinton bombed our military with crippling social experiments, I reckoned it was only our Marines who stood tall and fought his Kinder Gentler tactics.

So to this day, I've always admired Marine patriotism, honesty, true grit, dedication and good heart that's always put country and doing the right thing ahead of self. I hope the Pentagon inspector general draws a blank and gives the Corps a clean bill of health. If the I.G. doesn't, I doubt there will be anything Apple Pie left in America for our kids -- and you and me -- to believe in.